Sustainable tourism means taking responsibility for your own actions and the impact they might have on the environment as you travel. It means paying attention to the environments you find yourself in and respecting the communities you visit. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines eco-tourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. One thing you will notice in Cambodia is that respect for locales is low. Rubbish and plastic bags are simply thrown out onto the street. Heavily polluting vehicles often create a thick haze over towns and cities. You don't have to join in. Dispose of your own waste, don't use detergents or shampoo in lakes and rivers, and don't use electricity wastefully.
The environment in Cambodia has taken a real beating over the years. It is considered one of the most vulnerable countries in Asia by environmental activists and experts. High-canopy rainforest that once covered much of the country has been decimated by legal and illegal logging. To give you an idea of the scale of this, in 1970 Cambodia was 70% primary rainforest. By 2007, it was 3.1% primary rainforest. The soil erosion resulting from the mass deforestation is also a long-term problem. What hasn't been achieved by active plunder has been achieved by population growth in a country where subsistence-level living is the norm and resources are not used in a sustainable or renewable way.
A lot of the wildlife has also been poached or trafficked. Three-fourths of Cambodia's wildlife areas have disappeared as a result of the ravages of logging. Endangered species in Cambodia include three species of gibbon, several species of wild dog and wildcat, leopard, tiger, Asian elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, Thailand brow-antlered deer, kouprey, giant catfish, Indian python, Siamese crocodile, and estuarine crocodile. As of 2001, 23 of Cambodia's mammal species and 18 of its bird species were endangered. Cambodia has a problem with the illegal hunting of rare species, something to keep in mind when shopping in the markets.
There has been some progress in environmental tourism and attempting to preserve what is left. In Kratie, for instance, fisherman no longer use grenades to fish, thereby killing the endangered river dolphins. Yet there is also a lot to be worried about, including the rapid development of Cambodia's coastline and nearby islands, particularly around Sihanoukville. There is a great deal being built there, and the developers are almost entirely unregulated.
"Heritage Friendly" Establishments -- Much of Cambodia's ancient history has been lost, thanks to its violent past and the continued looting and trafficking of Khmer artifacts. To help prevent this, look for the "Heritage Friendly" logo. This logo was created by the Heritage Foundation (www.heritagewatch.org), an organization working to preserve Khmer antiquities and culture. The presence of the logo indicates that a business or organization has met certain standards that help protect Cambodian heritage. Travel to Cambodia is good, but responsible travel is even better.
Eco-Tourism in Cambodia
With the construction of the brand-new road from the Thai border at Koh Kong-Hat Lek (near Trat), the Cardamom Mountains, one of the last areas of forest wilderness in mainland Southeast Asia, is set to become the scene for eco-tours, with Koh Kong as its base. This is something that will have to be managed very carefully, if it is to do more good than harm. Hoteliers have also begun to adapt to the ecofriendly trend, opening ecoretreats and a few carbon-neutral options.
In Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, there are more and more opportunities to enjoy one of Cambodia's most remote areas. The heavy jungle is home to 12 different Khmer Loeu ethnic minority groups. On the way, you can stop in Kratie and go dolphin spotting on the Mekong. The rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins break the surface every now and then, but they remain powerfully shy.
Wild Asia (www.wildasia.net) is a social enterprise working to support the conservation of natural areas and the communities dependent upon their resources. They have a big presence in Cambodia and their website is an up-to-date source of on-the-ground environmental initiatives across the country. Buffalo Trails (www.buffalotrails-cambodia.com) operates tours on the Tonle Sap Lake and in the surrounding countryside. Based in Siem Reap, they specialize in sustainably run day trips where they aim to let tourists discover the beauty of the countryside and daily lives of local families. Pepy Tours (www.pepytours.com) is actually part of a wider NGO and environmental education project (PEPY stands for "Protect the Earth, Protect Yourself"). They run a variety of adventure and cultural tours, which help fund their aid work. Asian Adventures (www.asia-adventures.com) is a Phnom Penh -- based company offering a huge variety of tours all over the country under their guiding ethos of responsible tourism. In Koh Kong, the Oasis Resort (tel. 016/331556; www.oasisresort.netkhmer.com) offers local excursions to mangrove forests, waterfalls, sites for dolphin-watching, and secluded beaches.
General Resources for Green Travel
In addition to the resources for Cambodia listed above, the following websites provide valuable wide-ranging information on sustainable travel. For a list of even more sustainable resources, as well as tips and explanations on how to travel greener, visit www.frommers.com/planning.
- Responsible Travel (www.responsibletravel.com) is a great source of sustainable travel ideas; the site is run by a spokesperson for ethical tourism in the travel industry. Sustainable Travel International (www.sustainabletravelinternational.org) promotes ethical tourism practices, and manages an extensive directory of sustainable properties and tour operators around the world.
- In the U.K., Tourism Concern (www.tourismconcern.org.uk) works to reduce social and environmental problems connected to tourism. The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO; www.aito.co.uk) is a group of specialist operators leading the field in making vacations sustainable.
- In Canada, www.greenlivingonline.com offers extensive content on how to travel sustainably, including a travel and transport section and profiles of the best green shops and services in Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary.
- In Australia, the national body that sets guidelines and standards for eco-tourism is Ecotourism Australia (www.ecotourism.org.au). The Green Directory (www.thegreendirectory.com.au), Green Pages (www.thegreenpages.com.au), and Eco Directory (www.ecodirectory.com.au) offer sustainable travel tips and directories of green businesses.
- Carbonfund (www.carbonfund.org), TerraPass (www.terrapass.org), and Carbon Neutral (www.carbonneutral.org) provide info on "carbon offsetting," or offsetting the greenhouse gas emitted during flights.
- Greenhotels (www.greenhotels.com) recommends green-rated member hotels around the world that fulfill the company's stringent environmental requirements. Environmentally Friendly Hotels (www.environmentallyfriendlyhotels.com) offers more green accommodations ratings. The Hotel Association of Canada (www.hacgreenhotels.com) has a Green Key Eco-Rating Program, which audits the environmental performance of Canadian hotels, motels, and resorts.
- Sustain Lane (www.sustainlane.com) lists sustainable eating and drinking choices around the U.S.; also visit www.eatwellguide.org for tips on eating sustainably in the U.S. and Canada.
- For information on animal-friendly issues throughout the world, visit Tread Lightly (www.treadlightly.org). For information about the ethics of swimming with dolphins, visit the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (www.wdcs.org).
- Volunteer International (www.volunteerinternational.org) has a list of questions to help you determine the intentions and the nature of a volunteer program. For general info on volunteer travel, visit www.volunteerabroad.org and www.idealist.org.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.