Children, Animals & Responsible Tourism

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Mekong Tourism Forum 2016 panel on authentic travel & responsible tourism (left to right): Joe Cummings (moderator); James Sutherland; Dr Ashley Brooks; Seila Samleang; and John Roberts.

Mekong Tourism Forum 2016 panel on authentic travel & responsible tourism (left to right): Joe Cummings (moderator); James Sutherland; Dr Ashley Brooks; Seila Samleang; and John Roberts.

Comedian WC Fields famously suggested that one should never work with children or animals. However, responsible tourism stakeholders in the Mekong region feel an obligation to protect them.

The impacts of tourism on children and wildlife were the focus of a panel discussion about “Keeping Authentic Experiences Alive” at Mekong Tourism Forum 2016, July 6.

Moderated by Talisman Media Editor-at-Large Joe Cummings, the panel comprised Dr Ashley Brooks, Land Use Specialist at WWF Tigers Alive Initiative; John Roberts, Worldwide Conservation Director at Anantara Hotels & Resorts; James Sutherland, Communications Coordinator at Friends International; and Seila Samleang, Executive Director of APLE Cambodia.

Children & Responsible Tourism

Mr Samleang of APLE, a Cambodian NGO dedicated to combating the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, reported the good news that there had been a decline in reported child sex tourism cases in Cambodia since 2013. From 2004, when such statistics started, to 2012 there was horrendous growth in the number of reported cases; from 18 to 296 cases. Better tourism infrastructure and increased awareness of the issue among local stakeholders have played an important role, Mr Samleang said.

World Vision statistics from 2013 indicate that 95% of tourists have interactions with children when they travel; and most are uncomfortable with it. Friends International offers travel tips for interacting with children, including not giving to beggars nor visiting orphanages. “There are more sustainable ways to help, such as patronising a social enterprise,” Mr Sutherland said. Friends International runs training programs for community members and tourism providers.

Animals & Responsible Tourism

Every wild tiger shares the same territory as more than half the people on Earth; a relatively small circle encompassing Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and China. Yet there is a unique opportunity in northeast Cambodia to develop tiger safaris as a wildlife tourism product, said WWF’s Dr Brooks. The Eastern Plains Landscape, a vast forested region in northeast Cambodia and a small part of Vietnam, is considered to hold the greatest potential for tiger recovery in Southeast Asia. The landscape spans an area of more than 30,000 sq km and includes key protected areas: Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary, Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary, Mondulkiri Protected Forest, Seima Protected Forest in Cambodia, and Yok Don in Vietnam.

When “authentic” traditions and contemporary sensibilities collide there emerges an elephant in the room. Sometimes authenticity is not what travellers want to see. This is the issue Mr Roberts faces at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort where elephants are owned and trained in captivity by mahouts. It is a millennia-old tradition that continues to survive thanks largely to tourism. Logging and other traditional jobs for elephants and mahouts have declined. However some of the mahouts’ practises conflict with Western sensibilities. The challenge for the mahout community is to modernise their practises and evolve their tradition creating a “new authenticity”.

The Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO) welcomes contributions from experts and writers on the topics contained in this article, including responsible tourism. Click here to discover more about our contributor program.

Presentations from Mekong Tourism Forum 2016 are available for download here.

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