Boosting Inclusive Ecotourism Investment in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains

Cardamom Mountains, CambodiaThe Kingdom of Cambodia is endowed with tremendous natural capital assets. In addition to their importance for climate mitigation, these rich and diverse natural resources and related environmental services have been key drivers of the country’s economic growth. At the same time, (1) these assets are at risk of serious degradation due to unmanaged development, (2) economic benefits are not accruing equitably to local communities, and (3) the relationship between these assets and business development (dependencies) is not well understood.

A significant proportion of this natural capital is found in protected areas in the Cardamom Mountains, home to a diverse rural population. There is a major untapped opportunity to make these protected areas accessible to a growing local and global market for ecotourism experiences and attractions through inclusive ecotourism investment in Cambodia. If planned and implemented well, ecotourism will contribute to the long-term sustainability of these natural assets and the wellbeing of protected area residents and gateway communities. Ecotourism is also ideally situated to help drive Cambodia’s post-pandemic tourism recovery, as global trends indicate many tourists are more likely to be attracted to uncrowded and natural areas.

Employing a Human-Centered Design approach, Emerging360 in collaboration with Solimar International supported the Cambodian Ministry of Environment within the “Cambodia Sustainable Landscape & Ecotourism Project (CSLEP)” to formulate a five-year Regional Ecotourism Development Plan for the Cardamom Mountains (2022 – 2027). As part of the year-long assignment, Emerging360 developed robust visions for three priority ecotourism destinations in order to stimulate private sector investment, and we designed US$33 million worth of public sector infrastructure development investment recommendations, to be implemented through World Bank financing. 

Ecotourism in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains

The general aim of ecotourism in Cambodia is to provide visitors with a quality nature-based experience while minimizing impacts to natural resources and bringing benefits to local communities, especially in and around protected areas. Thanks to recent infrastructure developments, ecotourism businesses and community-based ecotourism sites have opened up in a handful of locations within the still largely inaccessible Cardamom Mountains. Some of these sites already receive significant numbers of visitors.

Potential trail network for inclusive development of hiking and mountain biking in the Cardamom Mountains

Potential Trail Network for Inclusive Development in Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia

Although ecotourism to the Cardamom Mountains is still incipient, with only a 2% share of total tourist arrivals (as highlighted in an earlier World Bank-funded study Enabling Ecotourism Development in Cambodia), the protected areas are estimated to have seen 30-40% growth in visitor arrivals between 2017 and 2019. Furthermore, ecotourism visits were much less affected by the COVID-19 pandemic than the national average or tourism visits. Despite regular travel restrictions due to COVID-19 pandemic, domestic tourism in Cambodia has continued to emerge with a drive to visit protected area destinations. In 2020 and 2021, as a result of the COVID pandemic, some protected area destinations in the Cardamom Mountains still captured 40-80% of their domestic visitation relative to 2018/2019, while the majority of destinations in Cambodia and the larger region saw an average decline in visitation of 75-80%.

Inclusive Ecotourism Investment Plans and Development Visions

Under the five-year Regional Ecotourism Development Plan for the Cardamom Mountains (2022 – 2027), Emerging360’s team explored potential tourism development avenues for destinations recognized as key ecotourism growth areas with substantial opportunities to leverage benefits for residents. The Ministry of Environment’s ultimate objective is for ecotourism to make a net positive contribution to conservation of the natural, cultural and historic resources in protected areas under their mandate, while increasing income and employment–especially for local women, youth, and indigenous groups.

Human-Centered Design Workshop in Cambodia

Human-Centered Design Workshop in Cambodia

Following an inclusive and participatory process that engaged relevant stakeholders from the private sector, local communities, government agencies, conservation and development partners, and the general public, Emerging360 drafted destination-specific investment plans, concretizing short-listed interventions that will mobilize the first steps towards the people’s destination visions. We made $33 million in innovative, actionable, and market-based investment recommendations towards improvement of public infrastructure and enhancement of ecotourism development.

Our cost-benefit analysis demonstrated how the proposed public investments will result in an increase in visitor spending of 337% by domestic visitors and 376% by international visitors in comparison to visitor expenditure in 2019 as a result of three main sub-effects: (1) increased number of visitors, (2) increased average length of stay, (3) increased average expenditure per day. This investment, in turn, is expected to lead, in the medium to long term, to higher quality of life for residents and increased economic activity linked to tourism. It will benefit local communities through promotion of conservation-compatible livelihood activities in tourism, agriculture, and value-added processing, as well as improved skills.

Approximately 25,000 people to benefit directly from engagement in hospitality and tourism

Approximately 25,000 Local Community Members to Benefit

In addition, the investment will:

  • Directly benefit 5,200 households – or approximately 25,000 people – engaged in tourism and hospitality, including increased income, employment, and business opportunities in line with conservation objectives.
  • Directly benefit 28,537 households involved in the production of non-timber forest products, including increased income, particularly from self-employment, and an increase in skills and competencies related to climate-friendly rural development activities.
  • Reduce the shadow price (social value) of carbon in the range of 76,578 tCO2eq per year, generating benefits of nearly US$ 3.07 million per year.

This, in turn, will have spillover effects on the landscape as a whole, increasing the value generated per tourist, increasing private investment in tourism, hospitality, and related value chains, and contributing to sustainable and inclusive destinations. Although the initial ecotourism investments will be deployed mainly in the three priority destinations, the effects will to some extent be realized across the nine provinces that are included in the Cambodia Sustainable Landscape & Ecotourism Project.

Read more about Emerging360’s work on inclusive recovery of the tourism sector in Southeast Asia.

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