Taking a holiday in a third world country is one of the biggest ‘trends’ in tourism today. Consider for example the boom in tourism to Cambodia; for many the epitome of poverty, strife and corruption. By 2007 the number of visitors to Cambodia annually will have risen by 1200% in just 10 years. Such interest brings the benefits of employment, revenue and foreign capital investment. Importantly, perhaps most importantly in an increasingly factious world, such international travel introduces and educates one people to another’s culture and attitudes. Unfortunately the benefits of international tourism only filter down so far. Despite all this activity the ‘poor end of town’ the world over still looks like it always did.
An interview between Andrew Booth, co-founder of Sage Insights Cambodia, and Nola Hersey, an independent journalist from Australia
– So of all the world’s problems why pick on this one?
This problem of extreme poverty in countries attracting mass tourism seems to me to be both largely overlooked and solvable. Open a magazine like TIME. Read a serious newspaper. Watch the television news. We often see scenes of distraught and hungry people living in parched and unattractive lands: lands with few natural resources and little that the world values. Equally disturbing though perhaps more unforgivable is poverty in lands so attractive; so rich in history, culture and natural beauty, that they attract millions of people from halfway around the world for vacations. These places have valuable assets. Assets owned by everyone who calls the land their home. Yet a large section of society misses out completely on the benefits these assets can bring.
– But surely international tourism to the third world brings benefits?
Sure! Huge benefits. But my question is “Who benefits?” or more pertinently, “Who doesn’t benefit?” Whatever it is of value that draws international interest to such a country, the assets; the ‘family silver’ of the country; is not owned by the investors in tourist hotels. Neither is it owned by the travel agents, the souvenir manufacturers, the tour guides or even the government of the day. It belongs to each and every person that calls the country ‘home’ and by all who ever will.
Of course the big idea is that governments manage the assets on everyone’s behalf. Through taxes imposed on the tourist industry and on increased economic activity they redistribute a share of the income; the ‘gate receipts to the event’, to its citizens. Unfortunately a common trait of third world countries is the lack of an accountable and transparent bureaucracy. The result: The weakest in society, those ‘without a voice’ get no benefit from international tourism attracted by their assets, their heritage.
– Are you suggesting that hotels shouldn’t profit from tourists in poor countries?
They must profit. Local and International investors in tourist infrastructure; the hotel groups and travel companies derive a great benefit from exploiting another country’s assets and so they should! These investors are motivated by a financial return. They are in the business of risking their investors’ capital to develop such opportunities. I also recognise that the local economies receive a great boost from such investment. Many jobs are created for local people through international tourism. New hotels need builders, cleaners, gardeners, guards, cooks and clerks.
– So where is the problem?
My point is not that local people don’t benefit. Rather it is that ALL the citizens of a country should benefit from an international interest in their common heritage. There remains a large group of people, especially in third world countries, who are completely disenfranchised from the benefits arising out of the richness of their own heritage.
Try to imagine a country which virtually overnight lost its entire professional class. How quickly would your own country recover from an elimination of virtually all lawyers, law enforcement personnel, bureaucrats, central and local politicians? You laugh. It’s easy to joke that there would be a huge improvement but the truth is that without the ‘rule of law’ the law of the jungle quickly asserts itself. The spoils gravitate to the strong and knowledgeable, a little is distributed to those of use and nothing at all to the weak
– For Example?
Cambodia has had more than its fair share of troubles from which it is bravely clawing its way back. The horrors of the Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970’s deprived the country of its entire professional class. A country does not recover from this overnight. Meanwhile there is an opportunity for some. As a recent USAID assessment of corruption in Cambodia noted “the unfortunate reality is that corruption has become part of everyday life in Cambodia, that in fact it has reached ‘pandemic’ proportions”. The law of the Jungle has come home to roost and despite the efforts of the government it is a difficult pattern to break. When the consensus is that everyone is ‘on the take’ the system becomes self sustaining.
So suddenly we have a boom in tourism from which the neediest in society are unlikely to benefit at all. Actually it’s somewhat worse than that. Booms in activity bring inflation. International travellers in third world countries strain precious resources and push up the prices for local commodities. The fresh fish that used to be affordable in the market suddenly all disappears up the road to fill the contract with the new hotel.
– Do you see a way of giving some benefits back to everyone?
In Cambodia I have helped found a venture called Sage Insights. Sage profits from the international tourist interest in Cambodia supports the neediest children in society. We are giving the neediest children of Cambodia an interest in their own heritage. Not just in the sense of the benefits of an ownership but also a curiosity and motivation to preserve their heritage.
– And your investors: How do they get a return?
There are no investors. All the benefits of Sage Insights go to house, feed and educate local street children, orphans and those from families so poor that they have no opportunities. The local employees benefit of course from a decent and steady income. As full time employees in quieter periods they are encouraged to research and learn more about their country and heritage to enable a responsive and ever improved service.
This is no compromise of ethical tourism versus a great service for the tourist; they experience the very best of Cambodia with a reliable and considerate local guide. All services are tailor made and there’s a 24/7 personal travel assistant to help with all matters in a sometimes confusing and difficult country. Even the quality hotels and international travel agents benefit; they have a partner they can trust to care for their customers in Cambodia; a partner who does everything possible to encourage visitors to return.
– To summarize, what are your hopes for the project?
I hope that as the project grows in scale and profile our competitors will find themselves adopting our standards and ethics. Over time the disenfranchised will be reconnected with the value of their own heritage.