Anne, NGO worker | Siem Reap, Cambodia | Dec. 29, 2009
Anne is a French NGO worker providing vocational training in the tourism sector to young Cambodians in Siem Reap.
About Siem Reap
Siem Reap is the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage Site – Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the main tourist attraction in Cambodia and Siem Reap receives the most tourism in Cambodia.
LPT: How do you feel about tourism in Cambodia? What are some effects of tourism on Siem Reap or Cambodia in your opinion?
Anne: So as you know, I work for a NGO, so my point of view is probably very special. It’s very good – tourism for Cambodia – but it’s also a very bad thing. At the moment it’s more bad than good. For two reasons: first reason is at the moment Cambodians aren’t receiving any economic benefits from tourism.1 It’s only the big companies, government and politicians.
LPT: What about the small guesthouses? I mean most backpackers stay there.
Anne: It’s too many guesthouses and too many hotels for only 2 million tourists. So, they are just empty. Nobody is inside, maybe 2 guests or 3 guests, that’s it. At the moment, few families have this job. And Siem Reap province, it’s a poor province in Cambodia even though it’s also a big province for tourism in Cambodia. It’s something very strange. So no. At the moment, (local) people are not benefiting from tourism.
LPT: So where is the money going to?
Anne: Big companies, government, and hotels. So it’s politicians, government and big private companies.
LPT: And what is the second negative?
Anne: So the second negative is tourist attitudes. So tourist attitudes, that means they give money to street children and this is no good. They pay for some food for street children, this is no good.2 They buy some books for street children – this is no good. So each time, each tourist does this; the day after, one child or new children are on the street. Each time is like this.
Each country, same as Cambodia, it’s always the same issues. That’s why there are so many NGOs here in Cambodia because tourists don’t want to understand the development of countries.
NGOs work for a long-term objective and not for a short-term objective. The short-term objective is to give money to the mother with a baby in the street. But tomorrow after the tourists have gone home, they don’t see the impact. So maybe, she needs to sell her baby to find something to eat. And things like this it’s very, very, bad.
These issues are not only in Cambodia but because there’s a lot of poor people here, because of the Khmer Rouge, because of the war, and because of the black out for 30 years, it’s a very special country with a lot of different problems.
The problems you have here in Cambodia, they are not the same in Thailand, they not the same in Laos. Cambodia’s past is something very special and now it’s very important for tourists to understand. To come here, it’s a good idea but they need to respect things.
Sometimes I say to Europeans, to give 20 Euros to street children; here it’s an one month salary for teachers. You cannot imagine in New York City, to go and give someone one month’s salary. It’s the same here. It’s exactly the same.
So these are the two negatives, for me. I always say, my point of view is from a NGO worker because I’m in contact of this problem.
LPT: And what is the positive impact of tourism?
Anne: Then positive issue, one of the big positive issues is this training school. We are here because there are more and more tourists coming. There are more and more hotels and they need very good employees with some industry knowledge so they hire from our vocational training school.
LPT: What do your students think about tourism and do they see the importance?
Anne: At the moment, it’s not only students but also local teachers and trainers are thinking like this. They don’t really understand why foreigners are coming to a poor country to see temples, Buddhist temples. So they don’t understand “why are you going to the lake to see floating villages?” It’s still very strange and but the reality is, yeah, they have jobs because of tourism so yeah, they are very happy with this.
The young students think more tourists, more money. It’s the new generation; it’s like this in Europe, probably in United States also. They don’t think about food, and they don’t
think about education. They just think quick money, quick modern things, same as us. They want the same things as us.
LPT: You mentioned many of your students are from the countryside and it’s the first time they’re away from home. What are some common challenges you see with your students?
Anne: Everything. Everything. First things are electricity and water. Just pushing a button and to have electricity. All of them, they don’t have electricity at home. They don’t have running water at home so just turning to have water. The first week, they always forget (motion turning off water). Yeah, it’s amazing like this. It’s the first time they see bathrooms. First time they talk with foreigners from different countries and some Asians (other Asian nationalities), some Europeans, some Africans, some Americans, etc. First time they see a city with a lot of cars, lot of, lot of motorcycles, bicycles, etc.
And I think the last the big, big, big, one is when we organize hotel visits. We have 18 hotel partners and we organize visits to the hotels. And it’s too much for them because it’s the first time they’ve seen an elevator so sometimes the students refuse to go inside.
LPT: Because they’re scared?
Anne: Yes. It’s everything is changing too fast and the students when they arrive, it’s difficult for them to understand what they see on the streets. When the students arrive in September, they immediately ask questions like, “Where does the water go?” “How do you make electricity?” “Why do foreigners sleep in beds?” Because here in Cambodia they sleep on floors. Because they think the bed is not comfortable.
LPT: Last question, why do you think responsible tourism is so important in Cambodia? In Cambodia and in Laos, I see so many community based tourism organizations everywhere. Even though they are up and coming destinations, I feel they’re really embracing sustainable tourism. I keep wondering who’s behind these initiatives – the NGOs or the government?
LPT: Ok, and what’s the reason?
Anne: Because we think we can really help with this kind of tourism. If you stay at a big hotel, it’s a big company and your money only goes to the big company and nothing for Cambodia. The salary is good but not so good. At the moment the top management is all foreigners. So you help but not really. In reality: no.
Why do NGOs think differently? Because we are here to help Cambodians or Laotians. We think everything can change but change in good way. It’s not only a question of money, it’s also a question of education, it’s a question of school, it’s a question of the future. It’s a question of preparing to help the adults of families now. But also to prepare society for the next generation and to prepare the country to prepare to help them.
So yeah, that’s why, we think, this kind of tourism is better than groups or better than individual people, staying in big hotels. Because at the moment this kind of big company, they do nothing for the country – nothing, nothing, nothing.
1Radio Free Asia, Little Profit Despite Tourism Growth, November 14, 2010 | http://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/tourism-11122010141212.html
2ChildSafe International, THINK Before Giving Money to Begging Children campaign | http://www.childsafe-international.org/THINK-campaign.asp