Cambodia Begins at 40 gets up close with Catherine Germier-Hamel, CEO of Destination Mekong to discuss the role the orgnisation can play in the region’s tourism revival.

Cathy, can you explain a bit about Destination Mekong and what it does?

Destination Mekong (DM) is a private regional Tourism Board, or more precisely Destination Management and Marketing Organization (DMO). Our main purpose is to champion the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), which comprises the Chinese Province of Yunnan and Region of Guangxi, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, as a single sustainable tourism destination creating value for all.

As a DMO, we offer a creative and collaborative platform connecting and engaging professionals, businesses, and organisations involved in tourism and hospitality in the GMS. We support and coordinate the efforts of the public and private sectors towards achieving the competitiveness, attractiveness, and sustainability of the region while highlighting its unique and diverse features and assets.

Created in 2017, Destination Mekong was incorporated in 2022 in Phnom Penh since the Ministry of Tourism of Cambodia expressed its willingness to support our operations from the beginning.

Destination Mekong encourages sustainable tourism in the region
Destination Mekong encourages sustainable tourism in the region

You took over the reins from Jens Thraenhart at the end of 2021. These must have been pretty big boots to fill. How have you found it?

When Jens Thraenhart, founder of Destination Mekong and former Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO), offered me this position, I accepted it without thinking too much.

I was craving for new professional and personal challenges, and relocating to Southeast Asia had become quite an obsession. It started in 2016 after a family trip in Cambodia where my mother was born, followed by a series of missions in the region. At that time, I had been living in South Korea for over a decade and all I wanted was a change of landscape, or even an escape. But I had to postpone my plans and, instead, I decided to start a new life as an entrepreneur in Seoul.

Then, the pandemic happened, and to keep myself busy and be able to travel at least virtually, I launched an online travel guide and toolkit promoting eco-friendly tourism experiences, Herost. After experiencing one lockdown in France, five or six quarantines in Korea, and too many jabs in the nose, Jens’ proposal came at a perfect time.

We met at a FAM trip to the Cardamom Mountains organised by our mutual friend Nick Ray, at the time you had not relocated to Phnom Penh. How have you found the adjustment to life there?
Destination Mekong
Cathy being interviewed at La Vallee on the Cardamom FAM trip, photo by Leslie Graham

You and I actually met for the first time at the ASEAN Tourism Forum in Sihanoukville in January 2022, my first business trip as the CEO of Destination Mekong. Then I came back to Phnom Penh and joined this awesome fam trip in the Cardamoms a few days later, sharing the same van with you, Nick, and a few other fantastic gentlemen.

This surely contributed to put me in the right mood for a smooth and happy relocation to Cambodia in general, and Phnom Penh in particular. I moved permanently to Phnom Penh last July and came back to South Korea a few months later to dissolve my two companies. But this is far from the end of my story in South Korea since it’s a key source market for the Mekong region. I believe the privilege of being over 40, a reference to your website, is to be mature enough to seek adventure rather than fearing it, and to find comfort in the most unfamiliar situations.

For readers thinking about relocating to Phnom Penh, what advice would you give them?

I would advise anybody to travel light, and land without any preconceived idea or cliché in mind. This should apply anyway to any destination. I would say the best way to enjoy life in Phnom Penh is to take tuk tuks, absorb the tasty food and quirky vibes, and stay positive, humble and open-minded in any circumstances.

Phnom Penh does not need any condescendence or arrogance, and there are so many places and initiatives that are not only promising but also exemplary. Yes, life here can be sometimes a little messy and unpredictable but c’est la vie.

Back to Destination Mekong. What has been the main focus of your attention for 2022?

In 2022, we have focused on reconnecting with our community and expanding our network of partners and supporters, building trust, excitement and engagement through branding and brand-awareness activities, strengthening our foundations and our governance, demonstrating our legitimacy, relevance and reliability. We have put our feet on the ground as often as possible and I had the opportunity to travel throughout Cambodia and the Mekong region for real-life meetings.

What do you feel have been your main achievements? The Destination Mekong Summit held in Cambodia was a great success, right?
Catherine Germier-Hamel, CEO of Destination Mekong at a Siem Reap roadshow
Catherine Germier-Hamel, CEO of Destination Mekong, at a Siem Reap roadshow

The Destination Mekong Summit in December 2022 culminated this eventful year. It was a great success in many ways but most importantly, it was a memorable human journey. The 2022 DMS was hosted for the first time in a hybrid format in Phnom Penh, and we managed to secure an awesome lineup of speakers, including high-level government officials, and the support of prominent content partners such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) or ECPAT (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking).

What plans do you have for 2023?

The main theme for this year will be ‘Mekong in motion, Mekong emotions’ as we want to promote action and connection, active tourism and cultural tourism. Our plans include the reactivation of flagship programmes and initiatives developed in the past, such as the Mekong Experience Collection, Mekong Stories, Mekong Mini, Mekong Innovation in Sustainable Tourism, as well as the launching of the Mekong Discovery Centers as multi-branded, multipurpose eco-friendly and smart community centres, with Cambodia and Laos as pilot countries.

We also want to start new Expert Groups on Micro-Certifications, Spiritual Tourism, Active Tourism, and undertake a series of webinars and workshops for our members. We also plan to co-organise FAM trips and conducting market research and surveys.

For any organisation thinking of joining Destination Mekong, how would you persuade them to do so?

I would first say that we are an inclusive community and not an elite club, and our main objective is not to impress but to inspire people. By the terms of our charter, only individuals can be members of Destination Mekong but organisations from the public and private sectors are encouraged to join us as partners, supporters, sponsors or even investors. Since our plan is to develop Destination Mekong as a social enterprise, we want to attract impact investments.

What other plans do you have for the Year of the Rabbit and Cat?

Hop Hop Hop!