For tourists, the meditative experience of dolphin-watching in Kampi village, just north of Kratie town, has long gone hand in hand with the simple charm of the provincial center.
The majority of visitors to the area are Cambodians, but numbers of international guests have also been on the rise, and tourism officials are now poised to spread the joy—and the riches.
With about 10 deep pools where the famed Irrawaddy dolphins dwell along a roughly 200-km stretch of the Mekong between Kratie and Stung Treng provinces, tourism officials estimate that there are at least a handful of locations that could benefit from the dwindling Irrawaddy population to become tourist centers.
In an effort to better distribute visitors and their dollars along this stretch, the Tourism Ministry—in conjunction with the UN’s World Tourism Organization and the Netherlands development organization SNV—has announced its intention to form an eco-trail linking these areas.
Though the project is in its infancy—with only about $1 million behind it at present, according to Hok Sokom, the Tourism Ministry’s deputy director of the project—the idea at this stage is to attract more funding and begin trying to work with communities in Kratie and Stung Treng to make them more amenable to experimenting within the tourist industry.
“They could make more money than what they usually earn from traditional fishing,” he said, adding that reducing the number of fishing nets used on the Mekong will also help preserve the dolphin population.
The design for the trail is a work in progress, but Hok Sokom said it will be a place for hiking and biking with various stops along the way centered around the dolphin population.
The longer term goals are to restructure tourism in the area with an eye on poverty alleviation, directing more revenue toward those most in need, as well as developing the industry to include more of the local community and more activities-like home stays and boat races.
According to government figures, the number of international tourists in Cambodia is growing by about 20 percent a year. The rate of growth in Kratie, as estimated by the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, is not as strong but still substantial, averaging 14 percent per year over the last five years.
Last year, however, domestic tourists to Kratie numbered 80,000, and around 10,800 international visitors passed through-marking a 35 percent increase on the previous year’s figures. International tourists numbered 4,000 in Stung Treng in 2006, which was about a 20 percent increase over 2005.
Still, despite the escalating numbers, not everyone in the country benefits from tourism, and certainly not the majority of those in the lower income brackets, according to SNV’s senior tourism adviser Anne-Maria Makela.
“Too much of it goes to Angkor and Siem Reap. We want to bring more communities into the tourism picture, either as employees or as suppliers to the tourism industry,” she said.
A recent SNV-backed study conducted by the IFC found that only 12 percent of the more than $3 million spent in Kratie in 2006 went to people from the poorest households.
A reasonable goal is to raise that figure to 30 percent, where it stands in areas like the Caribbean where tourism is more established, said SNV’s Asia Regional Director Andy Wekhamp.
She said funneling more local products-like food and furniture-into tourist establishments is a way to encompass more of the community, as well as working to develop services like transport, laundry and tour guides.
Touch Seang Tana, who heads the government’s dolphin conservation commission, said that it has taken the government about a decade to integrate the Kampi community into dolphin conservation and tourism efforts and that work on the trail will have to begin at the very basic levels of bettering infrastructure to achieve its goals.
“It took 10 years to build up capacity and knowledge. People need to see money in their own hand to start being convinced,” he said, mentioning that children selling carved dolphin sculptures indicate that more families are positioning themselves in relation to tourists.
But, he added, there still aren’t enough reasons for people to extend their length of stay in Kratie, let alone nearby towns that are less on the map. Down the road, however, he said he envisions puppet shows at night and other river attractions like weekend boat races and rafting trips.
Mam Rotha, director of Stung Treng’s provincial tourism department, said villagers in his area are quickly warming up to tourism-over logging and fishing-as a viable moneymaking option.
“We have trained communities for home-stay tourism…. They understand now to provide service for tourism through dolphin resources. Our dolphins are a unique product for tourists to see,” he said.
Richard Zanre, who is in charge of conservation organization WWF’s dolphin project, said that while the potential negative impact of boat tourism needs to be further studied, he hopes the proposed trail will help alleviate whatever pressure is on the dolphin population in Kampi.
“Currently, there is only one place to view dolphins,” he said, adding that if the trail was well managed it could provide locals with the revenue needed to further dolphin conservation.
“The community has been suffering from the ban on gillnets,” he said. “It’s important that they benefit from conservation, otherwise they could be very frustrated.”
Zanre said WWF hopes to release its latest dolphin count soon, but revealed that they estimate the population is less than 100-below numbers provided by Touch Seang Tana, who said he believes there are between 130 and 150 dolphins based on his own count last year.
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