The mastermind behind Kep’s Knai Bang Chatt resort and a pioneer of the country’s burgeoning luxury tourism market talks to ASEAN Forum about what luxury tourism signifies to him.
What is luxury tourism?
Luxury tourism for many Asians might be buying Gucci and Prada, or sometimes may involve gambling. However, we have lots of travellers from international markets looking for private luxury escapes. In Cambodia, we act as a friend to the world and we try to offer all travel markets a piece of what they define as “luxury”.
How do you see the luxury tourism market developing in Cambodia?
Each region is mapped to develop differently, offering travellers a unique experience. Siem Reap connects people to the ancient and cultural past; Phnom Penh connects people to recent tragic history but also to a vibrant city in transformation. The north and east of the country offer more nature based experiences, and the coastal Cambodia is divided in three different areas where we can offer luxury for each segment. Koh Kong for Chinese market, Sihanoukville and its islands with an enormous amount of new hotels and developments under construction to serve a mix of low, middle and high end tourism, and the Kep and Kampot region where travellers can connect to the beauty of Cambodia of today.
Has the type of tourist that visits Cambodia changed?
Maybe Cambodia is slowly changing from a country for travellers to a country for tourists, and this will change the whole picture. We have to be careful on this matter and see that we do not destroy the beauty that travellers receive today; that the richness of the culture is protected and is still at the core of the experience. Tourists mainly exchange money for pre-packaged tours. They consume experiences and move on without engaging with the local culture. Travellers are there to see and experience things, not to just buy or to consume; they tend to be more involved and diverse in their expectations.
What does Cambodia offer tourists that is unique?
For all international travellers, the Cambodian people are probably the biggest asset we have. They are very young and authentic; they carry a past, they are not yet spoiled, they still have dreams and they work hard to reach higher goals. It is so wonderful to experience this vibe. Our temples are the connection to our magical, mystical ancient past. Cambodia is developing nicely to allow travellers who after visiting the temples can now continue throughout the country and offer each a coastal cultural connection or a beach extension. Extra small but unique things that might make a stay in Cambodia unique include taking different types of local transport as possible, savouring Khmer food and enjoying the local markets, visiting pagodas to make an offering for a blessing and connecting to Buddhism, indulging in spa and massage treatments and getting connected to young designers and artisans. Last but not least: the biggest smile of Asia is probably right here in Cambodia.
What are people looking for in luxury tourism today?
People start to understand that you can only get rich by travelling not by buying the Gucci or Prada, which only give us a rich feeling for a short period of time. Real luxury tourism is providing and offering people private time to let them discover something new, something special; to let them connect to the hearts of Cambodian people, their customs, practices and their culture. To connect people with culture, heritage, architecture, customs and to enjoy local culinary delights. It is these experiences that provide memories of a lifetime.
How does Cambodia provide that?
We are on the right track to fill in the needs of what luxury travel is for each of us. Accessibility is getting a lot better, we are getting more diversification of products in each region and we are slowly realising that we have to protect the beauty of what we have today. I am confident that Cambodia will never become a copy of Vietnam or Thailand; that it will grow in serving the international travel world with personal style.
How has Knai Bang Chatt developed since you launched it?
For my guests, I hope not too much. We still invite you to an intimate and discreet experience of “understated luxury”. With 18 rooms only, and, yes, now with a professional team of 80, Knai Bang Chatt and its Sailing Club is, and will, stay a home for those who want to experience something different. Also our “Wabi-Sabi” concept of appreciating the beauty of being imperfect gives us a uniqueness that is even appreciated by the most sophisticated traveller. We never intend to become fashionable, but we want to stay pure and to do things that matter to all of us.
What measures do you take to ensure tourism does not impact on the environment?
To further promote our sustainable travel template, we recently entered into the Green Growth 2050 certification project where we will work on 450 key performance indicators to become a fully sustainable organisation with respect to humanity, to nature, to biodiversity, with respect to local and international laws. Booking an experience on a property that first takes care of its own people; that first respects the environment, and that makes social commitments before indulging its guests into luxury makes a big difference. Maybe this is what we should define as ‘the real luxury travel of tomorrow’.