Visitors Needed to Keep Community Ecotourism Project Afloat

Members of a Kampot-based community ecotourism project are hoping to welcome more local and international visitors as income continues to plunge in the wake of Covid-19
Tourist boats sit idle at Trapeang Sangke community. Kiripost/Meas Molika
Tourist boats sit idle at Trapeang Sangke community. Kiripost/Meas Molika

KAMPOT PROVINCE - A community ecotourism project in Kampot hopes to welcome more local and international visitors as the income livelihoods are dependent on continues to decline despite Cambodia reopening to tourists almost a year ago.

Lim Sophal, chairman of patrol of Trapeang Sangke Community Committee for two mandates since 2019, told Kiripost this week that the number of tourists remains low, even after the country reopened. While domestic tourists have started to slowly increase, international visitors remain scarce.

“The number of international tourists that come to visit the Trapeang Sangke community dropped because of Covid. While we have reopened again recently, the number of visitors remains little. But locals, like Khmer tourists, have started to increase steadily. Due to the relief of Covid, there are more organizations coming to have meetings here and plant mangroves,” Sophal said.

The main purpose of creating the community ecotourism project is to protect and sustain natural resources in the community, expand the remaining resources, create more jobs and decrease the number of residents immigrating.

Trapeang Sangke fishing community has a total population of 758 people. There are 473 Cambodians and 285 Cambodian Muslims, according to a 2017 detailed document of Trapeang Sangke fishing community.

A boy rides a bicycle in Trapeang Sangke community. Kiripost/Meas Molika
A boy rides a bicycle in Trapeang Sangke community. Kiripost/Meas Molika

Most community members are farmers or fishermen, with others partaking in aquaculture, handicrafts, and fishery to make fermented fish and dried shrimp.

“We created this [ecotourism community] to protect the natural resources in our community in a sustainable way for the next generation. We also want to conserve and strengthen the resources that are still present in the community. In addition, we want to decrease the immigration of fishermen because before we created this community, many fishermen migrated to Thailand, Malaysia and many other countries,” he said.

The village started life as a fishing community. When residents started planting mangrove trees for conservation, it sparked the idea to create an ecotourism initiative.

The Trapeang Sangke community was created on July 10, 2009 and was registered with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 2011. It is located in Trapeang Sangke Commune, Teuk Chhou district, Kampot province.

The project takes in bamboo bridges and bungalows made from reclaimed wood and palm trees, and roofs made of Slek Jak leaves found in the villages. It recently received an upgrade to attract more visitors and earn a higher income, said Sophal.

Trapeang Sangke fishing community is divided into five main areas. These are fishing grounds, seagrass conservation, and curved forest conservation, mangrove forests, and an environmental education center and community tourism center.

Community-based tourism plays an important role in providing income-generating jobs to local people through the provision of services. Activities that visitors can engage in river cruises, visiting the mangrove forest, fishing, visiting the salt fields, bird watching, and planting mangrove seedlings. The project also offers overnight accommodation and a recent addition is a meeting room.

Trapeang Sangke community. Kiripost/Meas Molika
Trapeang Sangke community. Kiripost/Meas Molika

“No one designed for us, we design it all on our own. It doesn’t have high standards like others, but we tried to create it based on our financial situation and the natural resources we have,” Sophal said.

He added, “We built this tourism project with our own hands. We didn't hire any engineers to build it for us, instead we tried to construct it ourselves.”

Today, there are 36 bedrooms with two mattresses on the ground and two fans in each room. Each can sleep up to four people at a cost of $12 per room, per night. During special occasions, such as national festivals, the price increases to $15.

Prior to the pandemic, the project earned between $2,800 and $3,100 a month. “Since Covid-19 until now, the number of tourists continues to fall sharply. Today, we see about 50 percent of tourists starting to visit. During Covid, there was almost no one here,” he said.

He noted that since National Road 33 fell into a state of disrepair and battled heavy floods, the number of visitors dropped to an extreme level.

In addition to earning income from ecotourism, Trapeang Sangke community rear animals, grow mixed crops, and work as vendors. However, fishing is the main source of income that the population depends on.

“My last key message is to request both domestic and foreign tourists to visit more. Moreover, those who come here, please help protect the environment by putting trash in the trash bin, avoid littering everywhere and cooperate to keep it clean and hygienic because we don’t have a garbage incinerator yet and we have to burn it,” urged Sophal.

Sophal is also urging the government to decrease fishing offenses in the community as most villagers' livelihoods rely on it.

A pier at Trapeang Sangke community. Kiripost/Meas Molika
A pier at Trapeang Sangke community. Kiripost/Meas Molika

Him Noriya, 33, a cook at Trapeang Sangke community ecotourism for more than 10 years, told Kiripost that during the Covid-19 crisis, some cooks stopped working there and went to work in the garment sector instead.

“Before not many people knew about our place, now a lot of people are starting to know our community and I am starting to gain more income to support my family and my children’s studies. My livelihood is not as difficult as before,” she said.

Food costs depend on what customers order as the community sources food depending on the number of guests staying. On average, prices range from $4 to $7 per person based on the customer’s choice.

“The income is not consistent. Sometimes, I can earn between 40,000 to 50,000 riel [$10 to $12.5] if there are some customers. If there are no customers, I cannot earn anything,” Noriya said.

She added, “I want to send a message to outsiders to visit Trapeang Sangke community because we have developed a lot. We have rooms, there is a boat ride, and on the beach, there are seats to sit and relax.”

Ok Sokkuri, currently a boat driver at Trapeang Sangke, told Kiripost that his job is to drive boats for tourists who want to plant the mangrove trees or explore the rural surroundings

“This kind of driving boat work doesn’t have a salary; we earn around 15,000 riel for one return journey because this boat is not mine, it belongs to the community,” 27-year-old Sokkuri said.

He added that before Covid-19, he transported about eight to nine tourists a day, earning about 120,000 to 135,000 riels ($30 to $33.75). Now this income has almost dried out and some days he earns nothing because there are no tourists.

“In the past [before Covid], during festival days I was able to earn a lot from many trips driving boats. Recently, during Pchum Ben, I earned from three to four return journeys a day but only at that time. My profit has fallen nearly 50 percent,” he told Kiripost on the boat.

Mangrove trees at Trapeang Sangke community. Kiripost/Meas Molika
Mangrove trees at Trapeang Sangke community. Kiripost/Meas Molika

There are a total of 16 boats at the ecotourism site. Boat drivers can only drive boats that correspond to their given number and the boatmen take turns ferrying passengers. One boat can carry up to 10 passengers.

He added, “We cannot earn money every day because right now the number of tourists is dropping while there are many boats. Therefore, we cannot drive our boat every day because in one day, we use only five to six boats. My boat number is high, 16, and sometimes it takes a day to reach my number before it’s my turn to drive. Sometimes, I have to wait four days to drive the boat.”

He added “Creating this community is a good concept, since citizens who live here can have more jobs to do. Some other people who don't have many things to do, like me, can work as a boat driver here and earn extra income to support the family.”

Sokkuri also wants more tourists to visit Trapeang Sangke community and experience the natural fresh air, affordable food prices, accommodation, and services, while enjoying the sea and beautiful views.