Vang Vieng, Lao PDR

How luxury travel can ease damaging effects of overtourism

As increasing levels of mass tourism in Cambodia’s major cities threaten to place strains on local infrastructure, representatives from the luxury travel industry offer a model of high-value, low-volume tourism they believe is key to preserving the Kingdom’s natural splendour.

Cambodia’s thriving tourism industry has long been defined by a kaleidoscope of all-too-familiar images: the dreadlocked-draped backpacker slouching towards Pub Street, elephant pants billowing in the wind. The busload of ageing tourists dutifully snapping shots of King Father Sihanouk’s statue before being bundled back into air-conditioned comfort. The children swinging off the ancient stone sculptures of Angkor Wat, their parents lost in a well-thumbed Lonely Planet.

But this past year has marked a turning point for Cambodia’s travel market. A handful of new five-star resorts – Alila, Six Senses and Shinta Mani Wild – have launched in the past six months or so, and most have set up camp far from the heart of Cambodia’s traditional tourist hotspots. No longer solely selling an image of ancient temples, the new resorts are instead pulling wealthy travellers to the country’s beaches, jungles and islands, far from the hustle and bustle of major cities.

“At a luxury level, travel in Cambodia has basically consisted of flying into Siem Reap and flying out again – until this year,” said Jason Friedman, who runs hospitality consulting agency JM Friedman & Co. “Now, luxury resorts are working to open up the country. This is the year of Cambodia.”

Less is more

Cambodia has been enjoying a tourism boom, with the industry becoming a major pillar of the economy. Total foreign visitors in 2018 increased by 11% from the year before to reach more than six million, and the government has been vocal in setting its sights on driving even more travellers to the country’s most popular vacation spots in coming years. Each of the Kingdom’s three airports has seen increasingly high traffic recently; the number of travellers through Siem Reap remains steady, tourism in Phnom Penh is on the rise, and Sihanoukville, in particular, has seen double-digit year-on-year growth in foreign visitors for months.

But rising tourism rates may have unforeseen consequences, as the infrastructure in Cambodia’s most populous cities struggles to bear the burden that rising tourist populations place on it.

“There are infrastructure problems and safety issues associated with overtourism, and the more people you have travelling to a destination, the more wear and tear,” Friedman said.

The persistent power cuts in Phnom Penh and complaints of trash pile-ups in Sihanoukville are evidence that strains on infrastructure are already apparent – and without improvements, Cambodia’s major cities may not be prepared for the country’s ever-increasing tourism numbers.

The issue with traditional tourism in Cambodia is that the focus has long remained on increasing the number of tourists in the country rather than increasing each tourist’s average monetary yield, said Friedman. Many tourists are unlikely to spend a considerable amount of money on their travels – or if they do, they often spend that cash in foreign-owned businesses, like the Chinese-owned casinos that line the Sihanoukville coast. The immediate effect of tourism, then, is not always positive for the cities and communities that attract the most visitors.

The answer may be in expanding the niche market of luxury tourism – attracting small numbers of people willing to pay big bucks for their travel.

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