Private sector investment is being sought for a $55 million project to develop sustainable eco-tourism in the Cardamom Mountains and Tonle Sap area.
The six-year Cambodia Sustainable Landscape and Ecotourism Project (CSLEP), driven by the World Bank, Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Rural Development, aims to transform Cambodia into a global ecotourism hub.
Speaking at the first CSLEP private sector networking event at The Waterside in Phnom Penh, Salimata Follea, World Bank task team leader, said ecotourism is slated to be the fastest growing sector in international tourism, with countries such as Kenya, Costa Rica and Bhutan already positioning themselves as global leaders.
“CSLEP is helping to set Cambodia on a course to join a select group of countries that promote ecotourism as one of their principled pillars,” she added.
The Cardamom Mountains-Tonle Sap (CMTS) landscape spans more than 3.8 million hectares across seven Cambodian provinces, taking in the largest protected forest in the Indochina region – the Cardamom Mountains – and one of the world’s most productive freshwater fisheries, the Tonle Sap Lake.
The area is a global biodiversity hotspot, with 63 percent of the Cardamoms designated as protected areas, and provides about five million Cambodians with income, food and water.
Under the project, ecotourism corridors will be created to link the tourism hubs of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh to the Cardamoms and Tonle Sap, with a raft of development opportunities available for public-private partnerships (PPP) to drive it forward.
“The growing emergence of the ecotourism sector in Cambodia offers some unique opportunities for PPPs and private investment in the protected areas,” said Follea.
“CSLEP is creating an enabling environment for the private sector to explore opportunities in CMTS by investing in better demarcation and protection for national parks, an improved visitor experience on the ground and easier access to the leading destinations with investment in rural roads.”
Investment is being sought for a raft of services and activities, including eco-lodges, camp sites, small restaurants and cafes, transport options, hiking and cycling trails, visitor centres, and nature-based adventures.
To encourage investors while also protecting the delicate ecosystems and communities that call CSLEP home, two new laws have been created. The first Prakas refers to small-scale development protects of less than 10 hectares for 15-year renewal concession contracts. The second refers to medium-scale projects for up to 50-year renewal.
“Together these prakas will build the secure and transparent foundations for the private sector to invest in Cambodia’s protected areas, such as eco-lodges and eco-resorts, to attract more ecotourism and contribute to the country’s growth,” said Follea.
In addition, a stringent set of guidelines has been drawn up in Khmer and English detailing the prakas and rules and regulations to invest.
Nick Ray, World Bank advisor, said the project will initially focus on key areas including Aural district, Koh Kong, and Phnom Kulen in Siem Reap “This is about the future and working together to develop ecotourism in these areas,” he remarked, giving Shinta Mani Wild as an example of potential developments.
Sao Sopheap, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Environment, said Cambodia’s protected areas have grown from 23 in 1993 to 73 today. This represents growth from 3.2 million hectares to 7.2 million hectares, with CSLEP aiming to aid protected area management.
He added that the project initially launched in October 2019 but was put on pause due to the pandemic. However, this presented an opportunity.
“In Cambodia, local tourists couldn’t go out due to the restrictions, so they explored the country instead. They started to appreciate Cambodia’s vast landscape and the value of our ecosystem,” Sopheap said.
“Now is the right time to seize this opportunity to promote ecotourism for the sake of protected area management, the sustainable management of natural resources and biodiversity, and to help boost the local economy for local communities.”
Follea added that the project also provides Cambodia with an opportunity to develop into a standalone tourism destination, further bolstering the economy.
“Cambodia has long been known for the temples of Angkor, it’s now time to promote wild Cambodia and the green gold of the Kingdom, the jungles, forests, rivers, waterfalls and incredible biodiversity of CMTS and other protected areas beyond,” she said.