On the road again

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It’s January 2006, two backpackers who met working at one of London’s finest hotels, are on the road again after experiencing the poverty on the streets of Phnom Penh, the harrowing stories of Toul Sleng and the haunting recollections of the Killing Fields. The bus driver, who sits behind a broken windscreen, drives recklessly along the long winding Route 6 bumping pot hole after pot hole to Siem Reap.

Arriving exhausted and emotionally drained at Earthwalkers Guesthouse, the weary travellers are met by welcoming Khmer smiles, a refreshing cold towel and a positive buzz in the air. It was here the Scandinavian management team exposed me to how tourism, managed appropriately, can benefit the locals whether through direct employment, building work, improved infrastructure or donating profits to local hospitals or street children projects.

The double-edged sword of tourism

Checking into Earthwalkers was literally a life-changing experience and taught me how ‘Tourism, like fire, can cook your food or burn your house down.’

Returning some months later I volunteered as an English teacher. Those first few months were really eye opening and exposed me to the real inequalities of the country, the lack of education, the absence of basic healthcare and the double-edged sword of tourism.

Mired in the many sustainable tourism issues I was confronted with, combined with a determination to do more and a chance meeting with Responsible Tourism expert Xavier Font, fuelled my ambition to learn more. I wanted to clearly understand how tourism could benefit the locals I was working with and improve their life chances.

It was then I decided to study a master’s degree in Responsible Tourism Management at the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at Leeds Met University.

Siem Reap was an extraordinary case study to hone my studies on and I soon busied myself putting my learnings into workable practical solutions. Working alongside the team at angkorhotels.org we improved the online marketing exposure of locally owned hotels and guesthouses, and consulted local guesthouse owners on how to be more appealing to a growing number of travellers looking for authentic local experiences and visitors concerned with protecting the environment.

It was also an opportune time to set up Harnessing Opportunities through Play and Education (HOPE) with fellow volunteer Tanya Seeley, assisting young adults in Siem Reap to finish their education, attend Life Skills classes and obtain valuable work experience in Siem Reap’s ever evolving hospitality and tourism sector.

In 2008 we celebrated World Responsible Tourism Day inviting all stakeholders in the community from hospitality and tourism sectors, Government officials, local NGOs, charities, local craftsmen to sell their wares and tourists. It was also the official launch for HOPE and ConCERT (Connecting Communities, Environment & Responsible Tourism) who aim to turn people’s good intentions into the best possible help for the most vulnerable people in Cambodia.

It was a vibrant time in Siem Reap as responsible tourism was just becoming more than a ‘nice’ thing to do – businesses were genuinely placing it at the heart of their business and marketing strategies, NGOs were realising how the tourism dollar could benefit their organisations and utilise pro-poor tourism as a means of eliminating individuals from the poverty trap and tourists extending their stays to do more and help.

Unfortunately, it was also an opportunity for scrupulous individuals to take advantage of tourists, vulnerable children / young adults and the system. Also, volunteers were (and still are) travelling in abundance to share a little of their knowledge and experience to help where they could. Not realising that, in some cases, they could be doing more harm than good even with the very best of intentions.

Authentic, responsible travel and hospitality experiences

Out of this whole experience, Mekong Experiences was established as a small consultancy advocating responsible tourism principles, and providing solutions for small businesses who were committed to utilising responsible tourism practices and align their own ethics to a business ethos.

By setting up Mekong Experiences, Thomas and I aim to help tourism and hospitality businesses to develop, communicate and promote their responsible product, and assist travellers to find authentic responsible travel and hospitality experiences.

Our achievements to date include running successful volunteer programmes for nurses, physiotherapists and teaches through Antipodeans Abroad, working closely with the staff and management team at the award-winning, locally-owned Soria Moria Boutique Hotel, and managing responsible conferences for corporate companies. We also put a proportion of our profits towards grass root projects in Cambodia.

Our work experience to date has helped to establish our position as key consultants within the responsible hospitality and tourism movement both in Siem Reap and in the UK. Including working with Dr Rebecca Hawkins at the Responsible Hospitality Partnership on various projects funded by the EU, Defra and Visit England.

I wasn’t quite joking when I said checking in to Earthwalkers eight years ago was a life-changing experience as the Scandinavian management team I met that night were siblings Thomas and Kristin Holdo Hansen. Thomas and I were married in 2012 and subsequently joint manage Mekong Experiences. Kristin is founder and Advisor at Soria Moria Hotel and continues to develop staff initiatives including exchange programmes between staff members at Soria Moria and Norwegian hotel workers at the innovative Quality Hotel Expo in Oslo, Norway..

And the reason I stayed at Earthwalkers, my fellow weary travel companion was Norwegian and hankering for some Scandinavian conversation…!!

So, what has this experience taught me?

Well… If managed responsibly, tourism can provide the fuel to help locals build a brighter future, but without collaboration many could burn their houses down along the way and remain trapped in the poverty cycle.

Jo Hansen

Business Development Manager at Mekong Experiences
With more than 20 years of experience from the tourism and hospitality sector, Jo completed a Masters in Responsible Tourism Management at Leeds Metropolitan University in 2009, firmly cementing her values in promoting sustainable development. Drawing heavily upon her sales, marketing and events experience within hotels, she works passionately with projects and organisations on a grassroots level in Cambodia to build bridges between poverty alleviation and tourism.

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