From Paradise to Profit

This Post was written by Rachael Brink, student and travel blogger. Read more about her opinions & experiences @  

About 25 kilometres off the coast of Cambodia lies Koh Rong, one of the country’s largest islands.  A two-hour ferry trip south from Sihanoukville lands tourists on the white sand beaches of Koh Tuich village, the most populated area of Koh Rong.  There is no hospital on the island, few shops to buy amenities, and sparse Wi-fi signal at a few of the 20 or so hotels in the village. Unlike some of its neighbours in the Thai Gulf, Koh Rong remains relatively untouched by international tourism, with around 80% of tourists being Cambodian.  This, however, is likely to change in the coming years.

The Royal Group, a Cambodian investment and development company, along with a Thailand-based Swiss investor, bought rights to Koh Rong for 99 years, starting in 2008.  The conglomerate has plans to build a hotel, airport, marina, golf course and residential development as part of a resort.  The idea is to bring affluent tourists to Cambodia, so they no longer need to go to Thailand or Vietnam for high-scale accommodation.  As the islands of Cambodia remain somewhat a secret to large-scale tourism, Royal Group is interested in turning this land into high profile, luxury accommodation, destined to bring in the same Westernized tourism that plagues Thai and Vietnamese islands.

Locals of Koh Rong have strongly opposed Royal Group’s efforts at industrialising the island.  Originally, Royal Group scheduled to have the luxury hotel up and running by December 2016, but intervention from locals has slowed the construction.  In July 2015, villagers staged a sit-in protest to stop Royal Group from building a road near Koh Tuich village. A year later, around 200 people rallied outside of the Preah Sihanouk provincial government office over land disputes arising from contractual issues that allow conglomerates, like Royal Group, to seize a person’s land with only a month’s notice.  Locals fear that their land will be taken and furthermore, destroyed by industrialisation all to create profit through foreign tourism.

At present, there exists one luxury accommodation in the islands of Cambodia, Song Saa Private Island.  Founders and native Australians, Rory and Melita Hunter, started the resort on the idea of sustainable luxury.  The couple bought the small islands Koh Ouen and Koh Bong and began populating them with exclusive, luxury villas.  Since the islands are privately owned, anyone who is not a visitor or villa owner is not allowed within a certain distance of the islands.  This inhibits anyone who is not a luxury tourist from coming anywhere near the resort.

While Song Saa Resort is very exclusive, costing $1240 per night, the couple has given back to the community through The Song Saa Foundation.  Projects supported by the foundation include creating and managing Cambodia’s first marine reserve, initiating a solid waste management program on the island, promoting an organic agriculture scheme and aiding in education and health programs.  Additionally, the resort hopes to provide varied job opportunities for Cambodian islanders.

While rapid growth in the tourism industry could boost Cambodia’s economy, the privatisation and industrialisation is occurring at a rate that outpaces the supply of necessary resources and concern for the preservation of culture and the environment.  As it stands, the people of Koh Rong have limited access to education, healthcare and employment opportunities.  Organisations, such as The Song Saa Foundation, Adventure Adam and Friends of Koh Rong, are attempting to provide education, sustainable management and healthcare to the island; however, progress is slow and based mainly on volunteers.  This begs several questions about the intentions of these organisations. Firstly are enough of the profits reaped from the privatisation of the Koh Ouen and Koh Bong islands into Song Saa Resort actually given back to the community that it displaced. Secondly, whether these initiatives actually benefit the locals in line with their perceived needs, rather than those perceived by the West, and lastly whether there was ever a need to interfere with local culture.

When done in an environmentally and culturally conscious way, foreign tourism in underdeveloped areas can help educate and grow local communities.  For instance, Friends of Koh Rong focuses on educating locals about business management, waste management, recycling, health care, nutrition, English and art through the help of volunteers and donations.  The combined efforts of The Song Saa Foundation, Adventure Adam and Friends of Koh Rong are helping to reduce pollution, increase sustainability, educate those lacking resources, and provide opportunities for a more lucrative future.  These organisations are helping Koh Rong locals to acclimate to the changes occurring on their island, regardless of whether or not the changes are ultimately benefitting the local community.

Less mindful efforts have the power to destroy existing cultures, communities, and the environment.  Increasing tourism from more developed, Western countries to areas of limited resources can eradicate the existing culture by failing to inform foreign tourists to respect and abide by cultural norms.  Bringing luxury accommodation to an undeveloped area can lead to economic inflation, where locals are unable to afford the necessary resources to live comfortably in their own territory.  To increase profits, environmental protection can be cast aside as a set of unnecessary expenses.  Finally, privatisation of islands, like Song Saa, or effective privatisation through luxury pricing can impede local tourism, depriving Cambodians the opportunity to travel and explore their own country whilst we continue on our quest for more exotic and luxurious destinations for ourselves.

What can be done to help?

Supporting local, culturally-conscious organisations through donations and volunteer work is the most direct way of helping Koh Rong against the threat of rapid industrialisation.  Unfortunately, the Cambodian government has little power against tycoons, such as Royal Group, which have already led to infringement on the rights of Koh Rong locals without any form of compensation.  If volunteering or donating is not possible, it is always helpful to be aware when travelling to new cultures to avoid offending locals.  Respecting existing cultures and understanding the local point of view can help preserve culture in a rapidly westernising world.

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About the author

Helen Jennings

Helen has studied at the Universities of Goldsmiths, Kent, Jyvaskyla (Finland) and The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø) where she obtained a MA in Indigenous Studies. She has travelled extensively and has lived and worked in Canada, Scandinavia, and South America. Helen is particularly interested in cultural, indigenous, and spiritual tourism, ideas behind sensible ‘regulation’ and is convinced of the value of ethical and sustainable tourism.

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