Jan 18 2012
It will surprise many of Siem Reap’s visitors to know that, despite the enormous amount of money spent by all two million of you each year, Siem Reap province remains the third poorest of Cambodia’s 23 provinces. This is a devastating statistic, and indicates that very little of the money that you spend here is making its way down to the people. There are, in effect, two economies in Siem Reap province: the tourist one, which is limited to the provincial capital and doing nicely, and the local one, which is not.
In a country with more than 3,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), it’s tempting to assume that the non-profit model is the best way to connect Cambodia’s growing number of tourists with the local population. However, and it may sound surprising, it is actually some of Siem Reap’s businesses that can give visitors the best opportunity to engage constructively with local people, make a genuine contribution to someone else’s well-being, and take some steps towards bridging that gap between tourists and the local economy.
This is a personal review of a number of businesses in Siem Reap whose corporate social responsibility structures I have looked at. I’ve discussed their community programmes with their owners or managers, and the single feature that always shone through was the passion they all felt for giving something back to the country that they feel so privileged to live and work in. Moreover, notwithstanding the social, economic and political problems Cambodia faces, doing business here is an awful lot easier than many other parts of the world. Giving something back is one way to recognise and acknowledge that, and the relationship goes two ways. Not only are the businesses mentioned here thriving, but everybody knows who they are too.
The opening of a new restaurant in December is a great example of how some businesses care, and care passionately, about contributing. Haven was established by a Swiss couple who were unable to find a satisfactory answer to their question: “What happens to young, institutionalised Cambodian kids when they’re too old to stay in the institutions?” No-one seemed to know, so they set about creating their own answer.
The result is a restaurant in a relaxed, stylish, setting that serves great food, and whose raison d’être is to provide formal training for those “in-between” kids. While the restaurant’s opening was funded by donations, it is a registered company, and is expected to be sustainable within the next two years. For diners and beneficiaries, the win-win is palpable, and very, very palatable.
When people look at big hotels they rarely think of their role in the community, yet a few of Siem Reap’s hotels really stand out for what they have achieved. Last November, in an extraordinary move that was envisioned from the day they first opened their doors in 2007, the Norwegian owners of Soria Moria transferred 51% of the ownership of the hotel to their local employees. Now the staff not only has a say in how the hotel is run, they also receive a profit share. Unsurprisingly, applications for jobs here have soared. This is just one of a dozen of Soria Moria’s initiatives, more details of which you’ll find on their website.
In the heart of Siem Reap, the Hotel de la Paix is one of the grandest structures in town, and a real landmark. Their commitment to the local community has also been a guide for others and has not just benefitted the people of Siem Reap, it has become an integral part of the hotel’s identity. A recent, albeit unanticipated, project that I was lucky enough to be a part of brought together the Hotel de la Paix, Heritage Suites Hotel, the Golden Banana and Exotissimo Travel with the Green Gecko Project, in a drive to raise funds to acquire and distribute relief supplies for thousands affected by the terrible floods that hit Siem Reap in September and October last year.
The flood relief drive demonstrated the vital link that businesses can play in supporting the local community. Absent government intervention, or local capacity, businesses such as these showed that they have the networks and the institutional capacity to reach out to raise funds and then deliver a project quickly. It might not be their job to do these things, but what would the world we live in be worth if we only ever just did our jobs?
Sojourn Boutique Resort is another hotel that took its humanitarian mission to heart. They recently created HUSK, an NGO with a mission to address some of the most important needs of the villages that lie beside the discreet little countryside paradise. The enormous range of projects they’ve started address issues including clean water, rubbish collection, health care and road safety.
For the hotel owners, this is just one way of saying thank you to the community they feel privileged enough to be a part of. I recently visited an extension to a health centre they had built so that women in labour would no longer have to use the public waiting room of the tiny local health clinic. The new building has been built of “eco-blocks” made out of plastic bottles and bags, making this not just a valuable local resource but a contribution to reducing landfill.
Tour operators also realise the importance of contributing to the communities that are so much a part of what they offer. Many of them have formal programmes for supporting local NGOs, such as the Intrepid Foundation, which seeks out local projects to fund, and Exotissimo, whose staff worked so hard on the flood drive described above, has a similar foundation.
Others were actually born out of a social model. ABOUTAsia Travel is a high-end tour operator set up specifically to support ABOUTAsia Schools (originally called IAM Cambodia), a project that works to support almost 70 schools in Siem Reap, or a total of 37,000 children, with materials, supplies, volunteer teachers, and free English lessons. Pepy Tours was also created specifically to support education in Cambodia, funded through their cycling and education tours. Their website and associated blog provide a fascinating insight into how business models can work hand in hand with development goals. It’s also worth a read for anyone considering volunteering.
Siem Reap is a special place that still faces many problems and everybody has a role to play in helping Cambodians to address those problems, businesses especially. The ones discussed here are only representative of efforts being made by many businesses all over Siem Reap. Keep an eye out in your hotel, or restaurant or tour operator to see how they can help you to help.
Hotel de la Paix
T: (063) 966 000
Heritage Suites Hotel
T: (063) 969 100
T: (063) 766 655
Sojourn Boutique Hotel
T: (063) 964 323
T: (063) 760 190
T: (063) 690 6081
Travelfish.org always pays its way. No exceptions.