Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Mekong Discovery Trail: Public education & awareness raising, training and research

Sunset from Kratie riverfront
The UNWTO Mekong Discovery Trail: a destination development, Heritage Trail Project that encompasses themes of Community Based Ecotourism, wildlife viewing tourism (in the case of the critically endangered Mekong (Irrawaddy) Dolphin and Stung Treng Ramsar site), private sector training, local government capacity building as well as setting up a system of trails throughout both of the rural provinces involved.  In many cases there are much similarities with this project and my first post-Master's Degree work on Hadrian's Wall Path in the UK, where I worked on many sub-trails of the main route, all designed as a rural development project.

Trail Map - click to enlarge
Other similarities include the destination being one of the areas least visited by "tourists" (2% of international visitors to Cambodia visit the provinces, many passing through on-route from the popular 4,000 islands destination in Southern Laos to the gem of Cambodia - the Temples of Angkor, I forget the exact figure pre-project for Hadrian's Wall); government involvement and the multi-stakeholder approach.  There similarities end, for Hadrian's wall we put considerable emphasis on physical trail infrastructure and used local Chambers of Commerce to help develop business links, local business marketing support and the private sector to develop trail guides etc.

The Mekong Discovery Trail focuses much on training and support to existing tourism related businesses with a focus on using guides over independent visits.  Interestingly the trail is not actually a single trail, rather a collection of routes (either walking, cycling, motorbike, boating or a combination) based from regional "capitals" of Kratie and Stung Treng that encompasses both project supported Community Based Ecotourism communities and the town areas.  

Kratie sunsets are a main attraction
So why develop a project in this location?  Three main reasons:  Firstly the area is relatively poor, with much of the population living on subsistence agriculture and river based fishing, all of which have conservation impacts on the river (and the dolphins, of which only around 120 remain in Cambodia), secondly Cambodia is seeking to diversify it's tourism industry after the Temples of Angkor and the beaches of Sihanoukville, and thirdly, the target area is on a rapidly developing tourist route for independent travellers in South East Asia, with upwards of 100,000 visitors a year visiting southern Lao and many passing through the target areas on-route to other Cambodian destinations.  The main challenge being to encourage these visitors to stop in either Stung Treng or Kratie Provinces for a few days and the hope they will develop into a destination in themselves.

Rarely can a critically endangered species be seen so easily
Indeed it is a challenge, especially as transport becomes increasingly straightforward, with good roads, reliable and safe bus travel and generally easy visa systems.  The Mekong Discovery Trail effectively competes with other destinations in the region that are more developed and have more impacting scenery (the landscape at this point is largely flat).  Though the area does have many charms, it will never be a primary destination.

The trail project is not stand alone.  It seeks to draw upon support and previous work done by NGOs in the region, especially Mlup Baitong and Cambodian Rural Development Team, who both have developed models of Community Based Ecotourism in various target communities, some of which are well developed.

Impressive colonial architecture in Kratie
Implementation-wise, the project relies heavily on subcontracting, which has benefits and constraints at the same time: on one occasion no less than 18 sub-contracts were in operation.  While this allows a relatively light core team, it does present issues with consultant continuity and in-depth knowledge of the trail's aims and objectives, and can create significant overlap and repetition of work.  Many consultant reports are written, each from a slightly different perspective which presents considerable reading.  Perhaps another constraint is the UNWTO contracting system that puts pressure on consultants to produce deliverables (as they should of course!), however for many provincially based businesses, a true partnership with the project has not been made, and many of the activities are voluntary, sometimes with a tepid local response.

So what has my role been in this?  For much of the latter part of 2011 I have been a subcontractor to the project, at the same time conducting some research as part of a larger research proposal based upon heritage tourism development projects.

Composting Demonstration in Preah Rumkel
I have worked with Live & Learn Environmental Education to develop and support a Waste Management project in the target communities.  This focused on developing appropriate awareness raising materials and transferring Live & Learn's considerable field training experience to local community leaders, from both rural and urban areas.  Additionally, a rural composting scheme was developed and introduced to local communities.  My work involved project resource planning, log frame, developing a long term monitoring and evaluation system and providing project management support, as well as analysis of waste management issues.

Nika trains a vendor by Kratie riverfront
My larger assignment has been managing the teaching and training of English for Tourism component.  English language skills are something that can be readily improved throughout the trail area and help improve local businesses and micro-enterprises work with international tourists.

I developed a comprehensive training programme aimed at a wide audience, including classroom based training and evening classes for guides and hotel staff, on the job training and mentoring to street vendors, transport providers, small restaurants, informal sector guides as well as in the Community Based Ecotourism communities, to homestay operators, vendors, guides and boat operators.  I employed a team of 4 very enthusiastic recent teaching graduates from the Royal University of Phnom Penh who worked in Kratie Town, Stung Treng Town, Preah Rumkel Community, O'Svay Community, Koh Phdao Island, Sambour and Koh Trong Island (click on each for pictures).  As part of the programme I developed a professional competency based training programme using vocational training methods and certificated assessment programme.  Of the 230 trainees that took part in training, 138 were awarded certificates.

ToT Workshop in Kratie
And finally, research: Professionally, I am very interested in how such projects impact local host communities, heritage assets and what benefits they provide.  I am especially interested in looking at how southern Lao, (the 4,000 islands area), has developed without much (if any) development project support and how the Mekong Discovery Trail Project has been designed and implemented, and how successful and relevant it has been.  The issues that interest me include the trail's focus on guided trail leaflets and their use by both tourists and the private sector, and how the trail meets the bulk market of independent travellers.  I am in the process of investigating the possibility of developing this research into a larger PhD proposal looking at the broad topic of improving host community and heritage conservation benefits from tourism.  But more on that later.

For pictures, please click on the following links:

English Language Training Programme
Waste Management Awareness Raising Programme
Preah Rumkel Community (by the Laos Border)
Don Det & Don Khone (4,000 islands, by the Cambodia border, opposite Preah Rumkel)
Stung Treng Town and around
Kratie Town and around
Koh Trong

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