Ecotourism is the most important word in the Cambodian tourism lexicon at the moment. Everyone is at it, or claims to be, in response to the growing desire of tourists to enjoy something that’s at once different, involved or “experiential” to use the other crucial industry buzzword, and environmentally responsible (we won’t talk about airline carbon footprints here). But notwithstanding its prevalence, there is a real lack of clarity about what ecotourism actually is.
Sadly, not many people, either tourists or tour operators, fully understand the term, which has been used willy-nilly by so many for so long now that it seems to have lost any formal meaning. Yet it still bears a strong imprint in the minds of travellers, one for which they have demonstrated they are prepared to pay a premium. Thus, it is not greatly in the interests of tour operators to fully inform them about what ecotourism really is or isn’t and, thanks to the woolliness, tourists are vulnerable to being misled.
For operators, it works because the more broadly the definition is drawn, the greater the numbers that can be attracted by it, and profits drawn from it. Some are simply riding a bandwagon, while others genuinely believe that what they are doing really is ecotourism, even though their operation has no genuine conservation outcomes.
For the heart of eco-tourism is conservation, and it is this that separates it from other forms of tourism. According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”. The keyword “conserves” is a technical term with a specific meaning, which unfortunately gets a little bit lost in this phrase. Conservation refers to a directed effort to protect and ‘conserve’ an identified natural area or species that faces a threat to its existence. For example, Cambodia’s giant ibis.
Ecotourism takes a holistic or integrated approach that draws the local community into the conservation effort not just because of the special knowledge that they possess, but also because their cooperation is frequently required in order to bring harmful practices to an end.
For this reason, ecotourism ensures the inclusion of the whole or a substantial part of the community in the conservation effort and sees to it that benefits from the tourism activities should go back to the community or to those members of the community whose incomes or access to food may be affected by the conservation work.
Development work in a community in which a conservation project happens to take place does not constitute ecotourism per se if there is no link between the beneficiaries and the conservation project. There are other related types of tourism, for example nature tourism emphasising the experience of the visitor, or pro-poor tourism which emphasises the economic benefits that tourism can bring to local people. Sometimes tours which more properly fit into these categories are touted as ecotourism because it has become a word that everyone knows. It’s buzzy.
If you google “ecotourism siem reap”, a number of options will present themselves. The list is constantly changing and it’s not really possible or wise to tell you exactly who is a bona fide ecotourism operator in Siem Reap and who is not. But if you are genuinely interested in what ecotourism is about and the benefits it brings to the environment, be prepared to ask some questions. From the many that could be asked, the main ones are:
1) Exactly what environmental conservation objective was this tour set up to achieve, and how does it achieve that objective?
2) What link is there between the local beneficiaries and the conservation objectives?
3) What benefits does the tour bring to the local community, and how?
4) What steps are taken to ensure that the environmental impact of the tours is minimised?
If your operator is not able to fully answer these questions, then the chances are that they’re not really an ecotourism operator, just something like one.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 4th February, 2015.