Whilst it’s not really a new concept, Local Travel has become an increasingly popular term within the travel industry, which is slowly but surely focusing more on ensuring that travel dollars support local business and benefit the right people – the locals themselves.
One exemplary model of this is the Soria Moria Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which, by virtue of its Employee Ownership Scheme, has raised the bar on local travel and hospitality by becoming the country’s first employee-owned hotel. In fact, each member of the staff, from housekeeping to front desk, and from kitchen and restaurant workers to the local management, is an owner.
And now, Soria Moria’s success has been celebrated with new awards and honours, including WTTC’s Tourism for Tomorrow Community Benefit Award 2012, the Wild Asia Responsible Tourism Awards 2012 and the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards 2012.
Local Travel Experiences
For many first-time visitors to Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples of Angkor are undoubtedly the main draws. It’s easy to understand why, but there are also many other local and more obscure things to explore in Siem Reap that enhance the overall travel experience and make people stay longer… and return time and time again.
With its proactive approach to responsible tourism practices, Soria Moria Boutique Hotel is a great place to start your exploration of Siem Reap and environs. In addition to providing a wide selection of information and useful travel tips and advice, as well as local tours to the temples and beyond, Soria Moria works closely with several community projects and encourages its guests to travel responsibly and make the most of their stay by interacting with locals.
For instance, Soria Moria is the home of The White Bicycles, a local charity providing a bicycle-rental service in Siem Reap. For only US$2 per day, visitors can get a well-maintained white bicycle and the proceeds support local community projects.
“Cycling is a great way to get around Siem Reap and to explore the temples,” says Roeun Samnieng, a keen cyclist and director of Soria Moria. “It’s good for the environment, but also for you. You get to feel the gentle breeze and hear all the sounds in a whole different way. And you’ll meet many interesting people along the way too.”
For longer journeys, Cambodian moto-trailers commonly known as tuk-tuks, or remorques as the local drivers like to call them, are a popular option. When going with a tuk-tuk, travellers get the added bonus of a personal driver who can provide information about Siem Reap from a local’s perspective.
They can also alert you to the many festivals and events in Siem Reap, not to mention the colourful wedding parties during ‘wedding season,’ when you might be asked to join in on the celebrations, which is a great opportunity to meet up with the locals.
Locally Driven Hospitality
Smartly dressed, Samnieng confidently talks about current issues in Siem Reap and the role played by Soria Moria in confronting them. His English is so impeccable that one would not have guessed that he was not able to start school until the age of 13.
“Many of the staff at Soria Moria come from very poor backgrounds,” he says. “We’ve been lucky, so we know from experience that education is very important and we work closely with many local projects and organisations on the ground to help others.”
He continues by explaining that many travellers ask what to do when they see children begging for money or selling flowers and bracelets late at night.
“When faced with begging children, many people feel they want to do something to help, but, unfortunately, giving money directly to begging children often keeps them out on the streets rather than attending school. It can also put the children in potentially dangerous situations.”
Soria Moria’s Higher Education Program provides locals with the opportunity to attend university, and its vocational training program provides paid trainee opportunities for young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Samnieng’s confidence is clearly shared by Soria Moria’s general manager, Sam Sokha, who eagerly teaches an English couple how to say sues’day and soksabai, which are the informal ways of saying ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’ in Khmer, the local language. It’s not necessary to speak fluent Khmer to get by in Siem Reap, but knowing a few words and phrases will definitely be appreciated and you are almost guaranteed to receive a big smile in return.
Sokha’s smile is one great example. Having started in housekeeping and then worked her way up the hotel’s career ladder, Sokha is an excellent chef and not at all daunted by the Khmer food having been overshadowed by its Thai and Vietnamese neighbours. At Soria Moria, though, a growing number of travellers has discovered that Cambodian cuisine is full of flavours and very tasty.
“Many people like Fish Amok and Beef Lok Lak and ask me for the recipe later,” says Sokha, “but if people want to try something a little different and more adventurous, I tell them where they can find crispy-fried crickets with garlic and chilli. It’s a popular snack for Khmer people.”
Driving Community Development
The close connections with the local community shine through in all aspects of the business, including the rooftop bar at Soria Moria, where live performances and fundraising events for local charities make it a popular meeting place for travellers and locals alike. Another meeting place is the lobby area, where there is a selection of locally made arts, crafts, Cambodian cookbooks and Fair Trade products from various organisations, not to mention leaflets and information about local organisations, shops and restaurants that all give something back to the local community.
“We do it because we want to do it and because we believe it’s the right thing to do,” says founder and business adviser Kristin Holdo Hansen. By implementing such an assortment of approaches within the hotel’s business model, the management and staff at Soria Moria certainly do well in creating win-win-win situations in which the traveller, the local community and the business itself all benefit.
Soria Moria Boutique Hotel is a member of the Local Travel Movement and was both a finalist in WTTC’s Tourism for Tomorrow Community Benefit Award 2012 and winner of Best in Community Engagement and Development in Wild Asia Responsible Tourism Awards 2012.
Just yesterday, the hotel added another accolade to its growing list of awards and commendations, taking first place in the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards 2012 in the category of Best Accommodation for Local Communities. As the honouring committee noted, “the judges were impressed both that all the hotel’s employees are local, including management positions, and by their innovative Employee Ownership Scheme through which the local employees have become partners and majority owners in the business with 51% of the shares.”