Action at grass roots

Angkor’s tourist income is funding community projects beyond the Cambodian heritage site, writes Leisa Tyler.

cambodia_times

cambodia_times

Cambodia’s Angkor Heritage Park is the fastest-growing tourism attraction of any World Heritage monument. Increasing at an average rate of 30 per cent a year, arrivals are expected to reach 3 million this year, up from 200,000 visitors 10 years ago.

Tourism has turned the temples into one of the most sought-after experiences in the world and brought development and infrastructure to the nearby town of Siem Reap.

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But few people in Siem Reap province benefit from these tourist dollars. Predominantly rural, the people remain among the poorest in Cambodia, many living on less than a dollar a day.

A Bangkok-based hotel management group is hoping to change this. “Tourism is better equipped and in a better position to deal with poverty than many governments,” says Bill Black, the managing director of Ativa Hospitality, a management company that has the Hotel de la Paix and Shinta Mani hotel in Siem Reap in its portfolio.

Black is a man on a mission. Diverting a percentage of room rates into community-based projects, the genteel Canadian wants to prove that, with a little effort and imagination, tourism can be a vehicle for community development.

Black’s first project, the Shinta Mani Hospitality School (now called the Institute of Hospitality), started in 2004. It enrolled 20 disadvantaged youths in a year-long hospitality course conducted at the Shinta Mani hotel that would prepare them to work in the town’s burgeoning hotel industry.

The program was a success and became the model for similar projects in Cambodia. Another Shinta Mani initiative is the Connect program, in which hotel guests can buy and deliver practical items such as wells and vegetable seed, piglets or bicycles to families in need.

Since its inception in 2005, the program has built 1043 water wells with mini-market gardens and 97 small concrete houses with septic tanks.

Black has since established the Hotel de la Paix Sewing Centre with funds from the five-star hotel, which teaches needlework and accounting skills to young women.

More recently the Hotel de la Paix teamed with MasterCard to raise money for a new workshop, which is now under construction at the sewing centre. A previous project with the credit-card company bought 900 bicycles for underprivileged school children.

“The idea is to give people the opportunity to be self-sufficient,” Black says, explaining that first they give families a well and vegetable seed. When they see the family has successfully grown vegetables, including surplus to sell for income, then they may buy them a bicycle or a female piglet to raise and breed.

Fiona Donato and daughter Felicity, 10, from Dover in Tasmania, became involved with Black’s Connect during a school trip to Cambodia, buying two water wells and a piglet and delivering them to the donors. Donato says the experience was “life changing”, and the school has since donated two more piglets, a house and 500 mosquito nets through fund raising.

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