Sunday, April 05, 2009

My letter to the NY Times travel editor--

Sadly unpublished! So here it is below, instead:


I would like to commend the NY Times on its coverage of the Southern Coast of Cambodia in its travel and leisure section article, “Banishing the Ghosts of Cambodia”.

I’m a media maker and student in the Master’s of Development Studies program at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, and I have lived in Cambodia for the past 4+ years. In my view, any stories that celebrate the new and more progressive sides of Cambodia should be applauded.

However, I’d also like to point out some shortcomings in the article that may bear relevance for future articles, and I hope the Times will consider implementing any suggestions that follow.

While Cambodia is an attractive and exciting tourist destination, with dimensions far exceeding Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields, it is also still a Lesser Developed Country (LDC). Tourism is a welcome and viable potential means for any LDC to increase its revenue base.

However, Cambodia is nonetheless still a developing nation, and mature levels of governance, which are so vital to ensuring the proper use and management of natural resources, are still lacking in some areas.

When the tourism sector meets weak governance in an LDC, then local natural resources may be strained or abused in order to meet the demands of the increasing number of tourists. Combined with a fragile level of governance, natural resources may be plundered in an uncontrolled, unsustainable way to meet this need.

As a case in point: our traveller, Henry, visits Kep and celebrates the hospitality of venues such as the Veranda Natural Resort. What Henry does not mention (or know) is that quite a few establishments in the Kep locality have sourced raw materials from the weakly protected nearby mountains of the Kep National Park, in order to construct accommodations and venues for tourists.

I personally have walked the trail which rings Kep mountain many times over the years, and the progressive levels of plunder that I’ve witnessed is saddening. Piles of wood chips line the footpath where timber has been processed in place; steep gulleys are appearing on the mountainside where stones and boulders have been plucked and harvested.

One day, returning from such a hike, I passed Cambodian workmen repairing the massive, boulder-constructed wall of the Veranda Natural Resort; I asked them where the stones had been sourced.

“Nou Phnom” (at the mountain) they answered.

To me, that’s a little heavy on the “Natural Resort” side of things.

To put this in perspective, it’s hard to imagine that a lodge in Yosemite National Park would be allowed to openly quarry materials from the face of El Capitan. It’s interesting, by the way, to note that many of the pre-KR villas in the Kep area were constructed using concrete, versus raw stone from the mountains (if you look closely at the “stone” walls of those pre-KR villas and bungalows, you’ll see that they are typically made of concrete which is textured to look
like stone).

Now, I’m not trying to be a wet blanket or rain on anyone’s parade, and again, I’m not asserting that all establishments in the local tourist industry operate without sensitivity in this area. But in a developing country where governance is weaker than we may be accustomed to back home, the user--i.e., the tourist or visitor--should maintain some level of awareness regarding these environmental and resource issues in order to promote sustainable tourism where it’s most needed.

If governance is weak in a developing country--which may be rightfully seeking to establish or expand its tourism sector--then the visitor from abroad should not be shy about questioning any apparent abuse of resources which may have been incurred to produce his or her particular “travel experience”, even if only incidental.

Once it’s established that the user (the tourist) does in fact care about the sustainability of the host country’s resources, then it’s conceivable that these abuses would diminish or cease—thereby allowing for truly sustainable tourism in those LDC’s which need a viable tourism sector so much.

Therefore: I would suggest the NY Times set a new standard in its coverage of travel and leisure when its writers are visiting LDCs such as Cambodia, by encouraging them to keep an eye on the vital sustainable dimensions of their travel experience as well.

The wealthy hotel owner, who may be able to pay off a local official in order to harvest materials from a protected area may not thank you; but the future generations of local people, the ones who have an actual, vested interest in the sustainability of local natural resources, just very well might.

With sincerest regards,

Jason Rosette