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Tourism to save the last 80 Mekong River Dolphins

12/02/2007 00:00:00 December 2007. The last 80 or so river dolphins in the Mekong River are at the heart of an ambitious development programme to tackle poverty and attract tens of thousands of visitors to two of the poorest provinces of Cambodia.

The Mekong River Discovery Trail Project will draw visitors to view the endangered fresh water dolphin which lives in 10 deep water natural pools in a 190-km stretch of the Mekong River, mostly between the quiet provincial capitals of Kratie and Stung Treng.
Mekong River Dolphin. © UNWTO
Poverty Alleviation
The main objective of the Discovery Trail is poverty alleviation. About 50% of all households in Stung Treng and 30% of those in Kratie live on less than US$1 a day. ‘The Mekong River Discovery Trail Project aims to bring about sustainable pro-poor tourism that helps develop Northeast Cambodia,’ says Dr Harsh Varma, Director of Development Assistance Department of the World Tourism Organization.

While Cambodia’s tourism arrival statistics show growth in excess of 20% a year, it is not equitably distributed, says Ms Anne-Maria Makela, Senior Tourism Advisor for SNV Netherlands Development Organisation. ‘Too much of it goes to Angkor and Siem Reap. We want to bring more communities into the tourism picture, either as employees or as suppliers to the tourism industry.’

Tourism increasing
In addition to 80,000 domestic tourists, the Cambodian government says that about 10,800 international visitors, mostly backpackers, visited Kratie in 2006, 35% up on the previous year. It estimates that 4,000 visited Stung Treng, an increase of 20%. By seeking out the dolphins, backpackers have shown the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism that there is potential.
Mekong River Dolphin. © UNWTO
Reduce Fishing and Gain Tourism revenue
As part of the project to attract tourists to the Mekong, villagers near the pools will be encouraged to diversify economic activity away from fishing. Local authorities believe fishing is depleting the dolphins’ food supply. Fishermen will be encouraged to take visitors to see the dolphins and sell food and drinks instead.

‘No dolphins means no tourism. No tourism means no development,’ says Dr Thong Khon, Cambodia’s Minister of Tourism. ‘Our challenge is to secure the long-term viable future of local communities and the river dolphin. Our priority is to build community awareness as well as hotels, guest houses and a boat jetty in Kratie to encourage more visitors.’

Poor Infrastructure
Access and infrastructure in Kratie and Stung Treng are problematic. There is no international standard hotel. There is no local airport. The nearest is in Phnom Penh, a five-hour road trip or a six-hour congested public boat trip away.

Nevertheless, budget travellers and a few tour groups have already ‘discovered’ Kratie, which still has some architecture and ambience from the French colonial period.

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