Going on vacation to a third world country is one of the biggest “trends” in tourism today. Take, for example, the tourism boom in Cambodia; for many, the epitome of poverty, strife and corruption. By 2007, the number of visitors to Cambodia annually will have increased by 1200% in just 10 years. This interest brings the benefits of employment, income, and foreign capital investment. Importantly, perhaps most importantly in an increasingly divided world, these international trips introduce and educate one people about the culture and attitudes of another. Unfortunately, the benefits of international tourism are only trickling down so far. Despite all this activity, the “poor end of town” around the world still seems like it always does.
An interview between Andrew Booth, co-founder of Sage Insights Cambodia, and Nola Hersey, freelance journalist from Australia
– So, of all the problems in the world, why choose this one?
This problem of extreme poverty in countries that attract mass tourism seems to me to be largely overlooked and can be solved. Open a magazine like TIME. Read a serious newspaper. Watch the television news. We often see scenes of anguished and hungry people living in arid and unattractive lands – lands with few natural resources and little that the world values. Equally disturbing, though perhaps more unforgivable, is the poverty on such attractive lands; so rich in history, culture and natural beauty, they attract millions of people from all over the world to vacation. These places have valuable assets. Assets that belong to all who call the earth home. However, a large part of society completely loses the benefits that these assets can bring.
– But surely international tourism to the third world brings benefits?
Safe! Big benefits. But my question is “Who benefits?” or more relevant, “Who doesn’t benefit?” Whatever the value that attracts international interest to such a country, the assets; the ‘family silver’ of the country; It is not owned by investors in tourist hotels. It is also not owned by travel agencies, souvenir makers, tour guides, or even the government of the day. It belongs to each and every person who calls the country “home” and to all who will.
Of course, the big idea is for governments to manage assets on behalf of everyone. Through taxes levied on the tourism industry and increased economic activity, they redistribute a part of the income; the ‘event entrance receipts’, to its citizens. Unfortunately, a common trait of third world countries is the lack of a transparent and accountable bureaucracy. The result: the weakest in society, those who “have no voice”, do not obtain any benefit from international tourism attracted by their assets, their heritage.
– Are you suggesting that hotels should not benefit from tourists in poor countries?
They must benefit. Local and international investors in tourism infrastructure; Hotel groups and travel companies make a huge profit from exploiting the assets of another country, and that’s why they should! These investors are motivated by financial performance. They are in the business of risking their investors’ capital to develop such opportunities. I also recognize that local economies get a big boost from such investment. Many jobs are created for the local population through international tourism. New hotels need builders, cleaners, gardeners, guards, cooks, and employees.
– So where is the problem?
My point is not that local people don’t benefit. Rather, it is that ALL citizens of a country should benefit from an international interest in their common heritage. There is still a large group of people, especially in third world countries, who are completely disenfranchised from wealth benefits from their own heritage.
Try to imagine a country that practically overnight lost its entire professional class. How quickly would your own country recover from the 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 big improvement, but the truth is that without the “rule of law,” the law of the jungle quickly takes over. The loot gravitates to the strong and knowledgeable, some is distributed to the useful and not at all to the weak.
– For instance?
Cambodia has had a host of problems from which it is valiantly recovering. The horrors of the Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s deprived the country of its entire professional class. A country does not recover from this overnight. In the meantime, there is an opportunity for some. As a recent USAID assessment of corruption in Cambodia noted, “The unfortunate reality is that corruption has become a part of everyday life in Cambodia, which has in fact reached ‘pandemic’ proportions.” The law of the jungle has returned home and, despite the government’s efforts, it is a difficult pattern to break. When the consensus is that everyone is “in the shot”, the system becomes self-sufficient.
Then all of a sudden we have a boom in tourism from which the neediest in society are unlikely to benefit at all. In fact, it is worse than that. Booms in activity bring inflation. International travelers in third world countries deplete precious resources and drive up the prices of local products. The fresh fish that used to be affordable in the market suddenly disappears along the way to fulfill the contract with the new hotel.
– Do you see any way to return some benefits to everyone?
In Cambodia, I helped found a company called Sage Insights. Sage profits from international tourist interest in Cambodia support the neediest children in society. We are giving Cambodia’s most needy children an interest in their own heritage. Not only in the sense of the benefits of a property, but also of curiosity and motivation to preserve its heritage.
– And your investors: How do they get profitability?
There are no investors. All proceeds from Sage Insights go to house, feed and educate street children, orphans and those from families so poor that they have no opportunities. Local employees benefit, of course, from a decent and stable income. As full-time employees in quieter periods, they are encouraged to research and learn more about their country and its heritage to allow for responsive and ever-improving service.
This is not a commitment to ethical tourism versus great service for the tourist; experience the best of Cambodia with a reliable and considerate local guide. All services are tailor-made and a personal travel assistant is available 24/7 to help you with all matters in a sometimes confusing and difficult country. Even quality hotels and international travel agents benefit; they have a partner they can trust to serve their clients in Cambodia; a partner who goes out of his way to encourage return visitors.
– In summary, what are your hopes for the project?
I hope that as the project grows in scale and profile, our competitors will find themselves embracing our standards and our ethics. Over time, the marginalized will reconnect with the value of their own heritage.