Couchfish: Foundations Matter

Couchfish: Foundations Matter

Three CBTs and a few thoughts.

In recent times, phrases like “travel like a local” or “experience whatever as a local” are a common mantra—Google offers up 2,320,000,000 results on a search for it—thanks Google. These are a marketing ploy, playing to an out-dated and exoticised fever dream of “local.” To a point, they’re all smoke and mirrors—one need only step outside their lodgings to see “the real deal.” This real deal though, isn’t the real many are after. They don’t want families in Starbucks, or teenagers glued to a Hollywood blockbuster. They want the real deals of yesteryear.

There is another approach. For years there’s been a slow bubbling scene on tourism’s sidelines—Community Based Tourism (CBT). Offering insight into how people live in smaller communities, on paper they seem like a good idea. The premise centres on co-opting the community into “the experience”, so they’re better vested in it. In theory, they’re implemented in a manner to share the wealth, they reduce the cons and push the pros. In practice, opinions vary—this paper by anthropologist Noel Salazar is a good primer on the former.

Stormy times ahead. Chi Phat scenes. Photo: Nicky Sullivan.

Issues aside, CBTs often have an eco tilt, but the community and its culture and society are vital draws. Over a stay, relationships can morph from a typical host-guest one to something more. The guests learn a skill or three, be it a bit of weaving, how to plant rice or brew rice wine. This learning works both ways—an inquisitive host learns plenty too. With some of the middle-men removed, more money can trickle in at the basest of levels.

“The jungle is my home and finally I am taking care of it.”

So says Chenda, a poacher turned tourist guide, at Chi Phat in Cambodia. Towards the end of the “virtual tour” of Chi Phat embedded below, Chenda talks about how he once sold a gibbon for US$200. Today, he earns money a different way—by taking tourists to see the same gibbon, over and over again.

An excellent “virtual tour” of Chi Phat. Worth every minute—with earphones!

Long-time Travelfish member amnicoll, tells me about Chi Phat by email:

“Chi Phat ... is now regarded as a model example of eco-tourism and receives many official visits from other interested parties to see how it operates. There is a range of accommodation and the main change you see in the village are the bungalows, which are all of a high standard and in nice locations. They have a program of activities for visitors and the villagers share the jobs and rotate so that everyone gets a share. The community take a percentage of the income to spend on the community.”

Wildlife Alliance established the CBT in Chi Phat. They work to reduce wildlife and lumber poaching, and people like Chenda are important. In the kleptocratic garbage fire that is Cambodia today, the challenges may seem insurmountable, but steps like this matter. Chenda’s pivot assists in the preservation of gibbons, but the money tourism brings floats more than his boat alone.

Menu alterations are limited. Trek-eating, Chi Phat. Photo: Nicky Sullivan.

At Chi Phat, jobs can be anything from guides to drivers, boatmen to food prep and sale. Travellers’ money brings benefits to the community through a variety of touch points. For the visitors, the upsides are likewise multi-faceted. Writes amnicoll again, on the family he stays with:

“His mother was a great cook and I used to eat there most days as my host’s wife works away from the village. ... These days I am part of the village family and am invited for meals, drinks, weddings, parties, housewarmings and unfortunately occasionally funerals. I come back for two separate month stays every year.”

That’s the income from a single traveller spending around two months a year in Chi Phat. More to my recurring point through this series. Who has the time to spend two months a year in Chi Phat? Backpackers and independent travellers do.

Another project that has pivoted communities from poaching to tourism is the “Nam Nern Night Safari,” in Laos’ Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area. I don’t have enough words to cover it here, but you can read about it on Travelfish. This paper, by one of the people associated with it, is an excellent read.

The Fortress of the Cat

Set in northwest Cambodia, Banteay Chhmar started a little earlier than Chi Phat. It’s home to a 12th/13th century Khmer complex of ruins which is one of the largest in the country. Despite its size and grandeur, the “Fortress of the Cat” sees precious few visitors.

A potted history of the early thinking at work at Banteay Chhmar.

In this case, French NGO Agir Pour le Cambodge (APLC) kicked things off. The Global Heritage Fund, involved in conservation work on the temple, came on board in 2009. Later still, education and heritage-focused Heritage Watch got involved. They work to link the value of protecting Khmer cultural heritage to tourism.

When the Banteay Chhmar project commenced, the road from tourist hub Siem Reap was—take my word for it—awful. From the get-go, a major handicap was that of the nature of its primary point of access. Siem Reap has the largest concentration of Khmer monuments on Earth on its doorstep. Why would you go see more somewhere else? Visitors needed either an interest in ruins, the less-travelled, or plenty of time. It should come as no surprise that visitor numbers were low—and those who trickled in? Backpackers and independent travellers.

Home is where the heart is. Banteay Chhmar homestay. Photo: Nicky Sullivan.

As with Chi Phat, the CBT rotates guests through local households, bringing money to local families. Aside from the ruins, activities include weaving and farm experience type stuff. Visitors eat local fare local-style, be it at the homestay or in a local restaurant. Sourced from the community, guests pay trained guides for tours through the ruins.

The road is better today, but unless one books a tour or car from Siem Reap, the nuts and bolts remain a slight hassle. This paper argues that due to a lack of skill transference, the community has not been proactive post-APLC. Outreach to tour companies languished, with many operators putting it in the “too hard” basket. The business acumen instilled was insufficient to build upon the foundation that had been laid. As we’ll see, tour companies can provide a reliable stream of bums on seats, and for this project, the lack of them has been a problem.

No queues at Banteay Chhmar. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

While the project hasn’t foundered, it is under-performing. Today, a trickle of independent travellers and backpackers are the mainstay. When I last visited in the year before the pandemic kicked off, I asked who visited. My guide pointed at me—rather than my mother—and said “people like you.” You can read into that what you want.

Guinea pig me

Around 800 km more of less due north of Banteay Chhmar, in Laos, lies the Nam Ha National Protected Area. In 1999, with financial support from (the now) NZAID, the Nam Ha Ecotourism Project (NHEP) began. An eventual Equator Initiative award winner, within three years, the accolades came in—in a 2002 review for UNESCO, the authors note:

“... the Nam Ha ecotourism Project has been a tremendous success in providing a model of how tourism might be used as a tool for development in rural and largely subsistent villages and as a mechanism for promoting forest conservation.”

In the Nam Ha National Protected Area. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The NHEP offered a range of one and multi-day trekking and rafting trips in and around the protected area. The primary market? Backpackers. The economic impact in Luang Nam Tha (the base for most activities) demonstrated a reach beyond the park. From the same report:

“Although the project is not targeted to developing the economy of Luang Namtha it has had a significant impact on employment of guides, tuk tuk drivers, food producers and sellers, etc. ... Guest house proprietors report increased occupancies and a tendency for tourists to return to their properties after a trek. This represents an extra night that would not have been spent in the town, as well additional income for food and beverages consumed.”

There has long been a road between Huay Xai in the south and Luang Nam Tha in the north. For the first decade or so post Laos’ reopening though, it was an a-grade shocker. The trip took over 12 hours in a songtheaw, making the appeal of a multi-day trekking/rafting trip obvious. Businesses had no problems filling weekly four-day trips for US$200+ a pop. It was, for a spell, one of the Laos experiences.

Then the government fixed the road.

This one isn’t dammed yet. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Lee Sheridan is a tourism professional who has been mostly based in Laos since 2001. With the Nam Ha project in mind, I asked about CBTs and financial sustainability. By Lao standards, the project was well-financed—for a spell it received $100,000 per year from NZAID. Direct revenue never topped half that. While not speaking specifically to the Nam Ha project, Sheridan saw a bigger role for the private sector:

“... I think private businesses could play a much stronger role in these situations and partner with the donor and community to help improve the chances of a sustainable outcome. I believe that if the private sector is able to play a stronger role in product development and market access, while the development agency / NGOs focus on supporting the communities, ensuring the private sector is behaving responsibly and helping offset the natural power imbalances between the two, then there is a much better chance of sustainability.”

On backpackers, whom Sheridan sees as being “more forgiving,” there were pros and cons:

“They can make great guinea pigs for developing new products, but I would recommend using this as a stepping stone on the path to product / customer diversification and upgrading, rather than a target end goal.”

I asked was there a need to educate backpackers around the connection between paying more and sustainable tourism. Sheridan saw as much a need to educate local businesses to help them keep in business:

“Within Laos, where so many businesses are small, family run enterprises I think there also needs to be further education and training on business management and finances. When many small businesses rely on undercutting their competitors as their primary point of differentiation and see short-term gains, it leaves very little space for investing in staff training, refurbishment of facilities, replacement of equipment, dealing with unexpected challenges etc that are needed to maintain long term sustainability.”

Money—and ideas—can change hands

In all the above cases, backpackers and independent travellers can play an important role. In the case of Chi Phat, they might stay far longer than the typical visitor. With out-of-the-way spots like Banteay Chhmar, even if the program isn’t delivering, they still trickle in. They can play an important role in product development—and a well designed foundation supports all sorts of floors.

“How’s life kids?” Village kids ham it up on periphery of Nam Na NPA. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

They’re flexible, they have more time, they can handle discomfort, they often have an interest in where they are. Destinations eschewing these people, are making a long-term mistake.

These programmes—and many others—are delivering money into local hands. Something else they can deliver, is a better understanding of what is happening in a country. This could relate to all manner of matters. Hanging out with a family for a week in a small rural community can teach you all sorts about how the wheel turns.

It can also teach you aplenty about human rights, government-sanctioned deforestation, encroachment by rubber plantations, and evictions due to dam construction projects. These too, can be valuable life lessons—and a CBT could be just the place to pick up an introductory course.

Other episodes in the Rethinking Tourism series:

  1. National Chocolate Milk Day (World Tourism Day)

  2. Nice Tourism (Sustainable Tourism)

  3. The Benevolent Lie (Responsible Tourism)

  4. The Year Is 2006. The Town Is Luang Prabang (Pro-poor Tourism)

  5. Zoom in to the Red Plastic Chairs (Slow Travel)

  6. The Petro-bourgeoisie (Flying, carbon etcetera)

  7. Reality Check (Tour companies)

  8. Follow the Money (Money matters)

  9. Foundations Matter (Community Based Tourism)

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