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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Top Spots For Southeast Asian Ecotourism

Inspired by Southeast Asia's natural beauty and rich culture, many travelers are showing an interest in the area's alternative "eco" vacations, like the one offered in the Thai National Forests.

Participants on this $2,300, 10-day tour (airfare and two nights' stay in Bangkok not included) receive an intensive education in regional ecology and conservation efforts, which range from using biogas to discourage logging and creating communal farms to decrease poaching. Highlights include trips to the Erawan, Budo Sungai-Padi and Khao Yai national parks, where tropical birds, elephants and Asiatic tigers live.

It's one of many luring travelers to the region. As travel to Southeast Asia continues to rise--an estimated 60.4 million tourists visited the region in 2007--many visitors are foregoing traditional packages and chain hotels and instead discovering the nascent ecotourism market.

In Depth: Top Spots For Southeast Asian Ecotourism

Ecotourism is broadly defined as "responsible" or "ethical" travel during which tourists try their best to minimize environmental impact and ensure their spending and presence benefits the local community. This niche market has grown steadily in recent years.

While it's difficult to estimate the region's share of this growth, experts say that examples like a solar-powered lodge in Sumatra, Indonesia, and a conservation-focused tour of the Sukau rainforest in Malaysia are indicative of a growing trend to provide tourists in Southeast Asia with culturally sensitive and environmentally friendly vacations.

"Some of [these countries]," says Ayako Ezaki, director of communications for the International Ecotourism Society, "have taken advantage of the natural and cultural heritage they have to develop tourism. They've highlighted those beauties and attracted tourists."

Enlightening Excursions
Though the market in Southeast Asia is still growing, there are several countries in the region that offer ecotourism options, including Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Visitors to northern Laos, for example, can stay at the Boat Landing Guest House, an eco-lodge certified by Green Globe, a company that rigorously evaluates a hotel's environmental practices. Guests at the riverside bungalows can rest assured the lodge is working to reduce its solid waste through recycling and composting. Tourists can spend their time trekking, rafting and biking in the nearby protected forests.

On a trip through the Sukau Rainforest in Malaysia, where the landscape features jungles, paddy fields and rivers, tourists will learn about local turtle conservation efforts and stay at the 20-room Sukau Rainforest eco-lodge where the water is heated with solar power and "passes" have been built into the land to accommodate elephant migration in the area. The lodge charges one dollar extra per international adult guest and uses it to fund projects like wildlife rehabilitation and tree planting.

Travelers worried about their carbon footprints can try a two-week trip to Cambodia, for which the tour operator can purchase carbon offsets. Highlights include visits to Angkor Wat, a 12th-century temple, and the Royal Palace, as well as the knowledge that the economic and environmental impact on communities is closely monitored.

A range of policies and practices like these are important, according to Dr. Eric Crystal, a lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, who has researched the positive and negative consequences of tourism in Southeast Asia.

"Tourism has brought a lot of good and bad things," Crystal says. But people can also be very conscious, he says, of what they can put back.

What To Know Before You Go
Though "ecotourism" is a vague term to most consumers, Andy Drumm, a senior ecotourism specialist at the Nature Conservancy, says there are specific components to look for in a vacation marketed with the word.

Where the environment is concerned, Drumm says tourists should ask whether or not a tour operator or hotel is certified and incorporates sustainable energy practices like solar power or water conservation.

Companies should also make clear exactly how they contribute to local communities. Volunteer time, financial contributions or donations of needed materials can be effective depending on the location. If a company doesn't comment on these issues or doesn't respond to questions, chances are they may be "greenwashing"--just using the "eco-" term as a marketing tool.

"You don't want to turn your vacation time into labor," he says of researching ecotourism travel options, "but you have to be pretty determined."

Awareness of one's impact often helps convince travelers to explore so-called ethical measures. At the Komodo National Park in Indonesia, for instance, independent travelers contribute about $100 to the local economy, whereas those on a package tour spend half that and those who arrive via a cruise ship have a local impact of only three cents. With this knowledge, a tourist might decide against a cruise and instead book local alternatives and buy keepsakes from native artisans.

"The important thing to note," says Ezaki, "is that when you say 'ecotourism,' it's not just about one particular group of companies you can travel with. It's about doing everything possible to make your experience more sustainable and more responsible."
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Russian man denies child sex abuse charge during trial in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: A Russian businessman accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl in Cambodia denied the charge Tuesday, despite the child's testimony that he paid her for sex last year.

Alexander Trofimov, 41, is accused of debauchery. If convicted of the child sex offense, Trofimov could face from 10 to 20 years in prison.

Police arrested Trofimov in the coastal city of Sihanoukville in October on suspicion he had sexually abused up to 19 Cambodian girls since 2005. Tuesday's trial, held in the capital, Phnom Penh, considered only one of those allegations.

Judge Ke Sakhan said he would announce a verdict Friday.

The teenage girl testified that she and Trofimov had sex in September last year. She said she received $100 out of $1,000 that Trofimov paid to a broker to bring the girl to him.

Trofimov, who has lived in Cambodia for more than three years, denied the charge.

"I have never seen her or committed any sex acts with her," Trofimov told the court. He urged the court to release him.

Phal Vannara, a 34-year-old Cambodian man, is charged with conspiracy in the sexual abuse for his alleged role as the broker. He is being tried alongside Trofimov.

Trofimov runs a company that in late 2006 received permission from the Cambodian government to develop Koh Puos, or Snake Island, into a tourist resort.
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Jackson's Sadie Thompson has school in Cambodia named in her honor

Jim Thompson and his sister, Hazel Joyce of Sutter Creek, hold up a picture of their mother, Jackson resident Sadie Thompson at a school in the village of Proa Chum, Cambodia. The school is dedicated to her by her son.

The new school in Cambodia is a tribute to Jim Thompson's mother, Sadie Thompson.

By Scott Thomas Anderson

On Dec. 8, 2007, a group of Cambodian children gathered in the early morning light at the center of their village and happily waved flags. The new school that was being opened for them was more than just a necessity, it was a symbol - a glimpse at a future not dominated by staggering poverty and hardship, but rather hope through education.

The opening was made possible by the generosity of an American man named Jim Thompson, and it was done as a tribute to the woman who'd taught him everything he knew about caring and compassion.

Before moving to Amador County in 2000, Sadie Thompson had traveled the world. Her husband, the late Jim Thompson Sr., was in the U.S. Navy and then worked in international business. The taste for foreign living was never lost on her son Jim, who's spent most of his adult life living in Asia. Today, Jim's international transportation and storage business, Crown Worldwide, is headquartered in Hong Kong and has offices in more than 50 countries.

Sadie's life, on the other hand, has been quieter lately. She lives in Rollingwood Estates in Jackson and spends a great deal of her time with her daughter, Hazel Joyce of Sutter Creek. Joyce said that, despite some health problems, the feisty 90-year-old still makes a strong impression on those who meet her. "My mom's a unique person," Joyce explained. "She's made a lot of friends since moving up here. She's very upbeat and positive. It's hard to explain, but people just tend to remember her."

Jim has always agreed, and that message was about to be shared with a village full of children who had never met anyone in the Thompson family. When he recently opened a new office for his company in the Cambodian city of Phnom Penh, his wife, Sally, toured the dire situation in the out-lying countryside. It was eventually brought to the Thompsons' attention that the village of Proa Chum needed a real school for its children, and that the area where what few classes were taught lacked an actual bathroom - which kept many young girls from showing up. The Thompsons wanted to help create a safe and secure place where the kids from Proa Chum could better their chances for the future through education. Jim contacted the Cambodian government and agreed to provide the funds for the school. His only condition was that it be named in his mother's honor.

With the aid of a professor from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Hun Sen Proa Chum Primary School was built in four months. On the day it opened, Joyce, along with a representative from Cambodia's prime minister and 1,500 other people were on hand. "The experience was so emotional, so overwhelming, that it's hard to put into words," recalled Joyce. "The idea that my brother would do this to honor my mother was amazing. And for me to share that day just provided a memory that I'll hold forever."

After a large picture of Sadie was shown to those gathered, Jim addressed the children. According to Johnson, they hung on his every word. "The only way for the children to escape the devastating poverty is to get an education; and that's what he stressed to them," she said. "For the girls who don't, they're often forced into prostitution. In Cambodia, the problem with AIDS and children being sold into prostitution has been well-documented by the media. It's horrific, and that's why Jim emphasized to the kids of Proa Chum to stay in school and use education as their way out."

The goal of helping children is something Joyce is very familiar with herself. She's currently on the board of Amador's Operation Care, which helps women and children who are the victims of abuse. She said both she and her brother's commitment to making a positive difference can be directly attributed to the role Sadie played in their lives. "There's certainly a connection between what Jim did in Cambodia and her," she said. "Anything about being good and trying to care for people, we learned from our mother."
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