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Working Towards Sustainable Tourism in Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia

This summer, Operation Groundswell’s Southeast Asia Discovery program will initiate a new partnership with the Banteay Chhmar Community-Based Tourism group (CBT), a local cooperative organization in northwestern Cambodia that aims to develop a sustainable tourism economy in the villages surrounding one of Cambodia’s most spectacular ancient temple complexes. The goal of the CBT is to harness the rapid growth of tourism in Cambodia as an enabler of economic and social development to improve the livelihoods of the rural Banteay Chhmar community. Striking a balance between the needs and wishes of the local community, the preservation of the massive 12th-century temple complex, and the demands of increasing numbers of tourists is a formidable challenge, but one which the Banteay Chhmar CBT – with support from the Global Heritage Fund – is facing laudably. Through ongoing restoration and maintenance of the Banteay Chhmar temple complex and initiatives to develop tourism services and infrastructure (such as homestays, guided tours, and cultural activities) the CBT is meeting its goals to be sustainable and community-oriented.

Ta Phrom, Angkor

Ta Phrom Temple at Banteay Chhmar

Since the late 1990s, Cambodia has witnessed a staggering increase in the number of tourists visiting the country (In 2011, they totalled almost three million people!). The effect has largely been the development of a mass tourism industry focused primarily on the World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat. While surely the economic growth generated by this boom is impressive, other less encouraging, consequences need to be carefully scrutinized. The extremely rapid increase in tourism at Angkor and the concomitant urbanization of the town of Siem Reap over the last decade has put a strain on the structural integrity of the Angkor temples and is directly leading to environmental degradation in the region.

From a social and rural development perspective, the effects of tourism have not been as promising as was hoped in the 1990s. Siem Reap remains one of Cambodia’s poorest provinces, despite the fact that tourism at Angkor is a multi-million dollar industry. The reality is that most (about 80%) of the revenue flows out of the country into the accounts of international hotels, airlines, travel agencies, and foreign investors. The remainder is secured by local businesses and authorities who capitalize on the unregulated free-market tourism industry. While tourism has created jobs in the town of Siem Reap, very little of the revenue trickles down to the majority rural poor who depend mostly on farming for income – the prospects for rural development remain dim as private sector demands overrule investment to create opportunities for the economically marginalized.

Banteay Chhmar rice fields

Banteay Chhmar's rice fields at sunset

One promising alternative to unregulated mass tourism at Angkor is the community-based approach implemented at Banteay Chhmar. The negative consequences outlined above are averted through a grassroots approach that puts the community first, allowing them to become effective stewards of their own cultural patrimony while meeting tourist demand in a sustainable manner.

If you would like to join us in visiting, engaging, and volunteering with the Banteay Chhmar CBT group, apply for our Southeast Asia Discovery program today!

Sidney Jhingran
2013 Southeast Asia Trip Leader

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