Vang Vieng, Lao PDR

How Mekong communities stay afloat on eco-tourism

The Mekong river stretches 190 kilometres in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces. Various points in the stretch have been designated as protected areas for Irrawaddy dolphins and flooded forests, which contain natural resources and biodiversity.

The stretch is also home to local communities who have teamed up with their provincial neighbours to create dolphin pool eco-tourism communities and take advantage of eco-tourism initiatives to earn additional income and improve the lives of their families.

Khmer Times reporter Pech Sotheary spoke to members of these communities to find out more about how they rely on protected areas for income.

Kratie & Stung Treng provinces – Hean Koeun sits on a small boat while waiting for tourists who wanted to visit islands and watch dolphins at the Kampi dolphin pool in Kratie’s Prek Prasab district.

The 66-year-old tour boat operator says he has been with the Kampi dolphin pool eco-tourism community in Kratie for more than one year, and he is able to earn between $4 and $8 per day, depending on the number of customers.

“A boat tour costs tourists about 40,000 riels [$10] each – the boat can take up to five tourists,” Mr Koeun says.

“However, the money is divided. The provincial administration gets 20,000 riels, a local community gets 5,000 riels and we get to keep the rest,” he adds. “We can earn 30,000 riels if we take tourists on tours twice per day. The money can be used to support our families.”

Mr Koeun says when he is not driving tourists, he is a fisherman who has relied on the Mekong river for many years.

He says that over the past few years, the fish yield has dramatically declined, forcing many freshwater fishermen to find additional means to earn a living.

“In the past, I was able to get many fish – enough for consumption and make prahok,” he says. “But now, I cannot even catch one or two kilogrammes for my family to eat.”

“I am getting older and I cannot find other jobs aside from being a tourist boat operator,” Mr Koeun adds.

He says eco-tourism tours are popular among visitors because many of them want to ride in a boat along the Mekong river to observe flooded forests and watch rare birds and dolphins.

Mr Koeun says many tourists are also interested in camping on the islands of Sam Beb, Han, Khsach Kpous, Pdao and Trung.

He says becoming a member of the local eco-tourism community has been beneficial as members help organise food, souvenirs and programmes to visit protected areas.

The communities

 A campfire on Sam Beb lights up the night, illuminating the face of Ou Sokha, a representative of the Kampi dolphin pool eco-tourism community.

Mr Sokha’s facial expression shows that the 63-year-old is intent on preserving natural resources and preventing illegal logging and fishing.

He says he has been with the community for more than one year.

“In the past, illegal fishing activities through the use of banned electrical equipment were everywhere,” Mr Sokha says. “However, after we set up an eco-tourism site – with camps – illegal fishermen did not dare to come here.”

“Some illegal loggers have joined us so we have curbed illegal fishing and deforestation,” he says.

Mr Sokha says the community on Sam Beb island last year received more than 200 tourists, earning more than $3,000 combined.

He says he is now asking provincial authorities and other government institutions to help by building roads and bridges for the site so tourists can travel.

People in Kratie are not the only ones to have been gearing up to take advantage of eco-tourism. Villagers in Stung Treng have established eco-tourism sites at the Preah Nimith waterfall and Ream Sa area, while others established the Preah Rumkel eco-tourism community.

In Stung Treng, Ba Phen, 55, a member of the Preah Rumkel, says she grew up as a rice farmer, whose family fished along the Mekong.

Ms Phen says she joined Preah Rumkel in 2018 because being a farmer or a fisherwoman did not yield much income.

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