When Eco-friendly Tourism Isn’t Enough

When Eco-friendly Tourism Isn’t Enough

The term “eco-friendly” gets thrown around a lot these days. We see it used in everything from cups at the coffee shop to the chemicals we clean our toilets with. Sadly, despite its noble origin, the term has lost much of its original purpose due to overuse and the subjective definitions of “eco” and “friendly”. You could pour boiling water down an anthill and say it’s eco-friendly pest control… but the ants would probably disagree.

This is something we think a lot about at Smiling Albino. While we work hard to minimize our traveling impact, we’re still dealing with travel, supplies, and logistics on an international level. For us, this means that we have a responsibility to go the extra mile to minimize our footprint.

This is most evident on one of our amazing Cambodian adventures. In fact, we’ve gotten rid of “eco-friendly” completely. We take things to the next level by ensuring responsible tourism.

“Responsible tourism implies a degree of accountability on the guest’s behalf,” says Nick Butler, Smiling Albino’s Cambodia country manager. “It’s not solely the tour operator that needs to keep an eye on things, but the stakeholders as well – the community, suppliers, and guests alike.”

It’s not always easy. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, with one report saying it loses over 2,000 square km of forest every year. Money talks, and when you’re passing it around in one of the world’s poorest countries, it talks loudly. However, progress is being made with the help of people like Nick, who have a deep love for Cambodia and its natural treasures.

Nick points to the Sam Veasna Center, a local NGO he was involved with and keeps a close relationship with, that aims to educate locals and tourists alike about the benefits that ecological conservation can bring.

“At Sam Veasna we started offering bird watching tours, which gave local communities alternative options for making money. We focused our attention on Phnom Kulen, a lush mountain range and UNESCO World Heritage site 50km north of Siem Reap,” says Nick. “We employed local guides, made conservation contributions, and started educating people that it was in their best interest to let the flora and fauna thrive.”

This has always been a challenge when trying to instill a respect for responsible tourism, especially in countries where the concept is not widespread. “Many think it’s crazy – why would someone want to watch birds when they can go to a casino or buy a car? It takes years before they start to see the results, but once they do, your case is a lot stronger.”

Nick points to Cambodian wildlife reserve Tmatboey, a great example of a community in action. Before they banded together to protect their area the average family income per year was $250. Now The Ibis project set up in partnership with the Sam Veasna Centre, Wildlife Conservation Society and the local community is raising $14,000 a year as an income for the whole community. The money that comes in from bird watchers and tourist looking to connect with nature has gone back into roads, bridges, wells, and even a rice bank, which lets locals borrow rice for planting and pay it back during harvest season.

These are just local examples of success stories in Cambodia, but they very much reflect the mindset that Smiling Albino has about all of the countries we operate in. We want our guests to feel like they aren’t on a trip, but rather that they are part of a trip. We, as well as they, have a responsibility to not only “leave nothing but footprints,” but to try and leave each place a little better than when we arrived.