The Norwegian couple Katrine Solhaug and her husband Simen Julner has re-opened their Siam Reap guesthouse Babel Guesthouse after Covid-19 travel restrictions and road building in Cambodia forced them to close over a year ago.
In an interview with Peter Olszewski for Khmer Times, the couple talks about their struggles during the pandemic and share how they through innovative measures have managed to reinvent their business to survive the hardship the pandemic has caused.
Katrine originally came to Siem Reap in 2007 to run a guesthouse for one year and hired her boyfriend in Norway to come and help. The couple decided to stay and took over the ownership of Babel Guesthouse in 2011 focusing on responsible tourism and only employing local workers, providing English lessons and the possibility to be sponsored for higher education.
Katrine also brought Norwegian tourism students to Siem Reap as part of their tourism degree and explains to Khmer Times, “We gained cooperation from the Norwegian University of Hotel Management and went back and forth to Norway for some years to make this happen.” The couple ran the guesthouse and provided Norwegian students a place to stay during their three-month course while also teaching them how to run a guesthouse with a focus on responsible tourism.
At Babel Guesthouse Katrine and Simen also hosted live music events, private gatherings, and lots of other activities in their big tropical garden, and in 2018 they opened Cambodia’s first Eco-Shop and Refill Station, stocking eco-friendly natural alternatives to plastic for travelers on the premises. “Then came Covid. Overnight we became EMPTY. We have two children under four years old, and no close family here in Siem Reap. We had to make the decision – do we stay or do we go back to safe Norway,” Katrine says.
The couple decided to stay and organized a big fundraiser for their twelve staff and sixteen tuk-tuk drivers who all depended on Babel Guesthouse for survival. But if the pandemic did not cause enough distress, a road-building project also started which resulted in Babel Guesthouse’s big garden being reduced by 5 meters and the couple was very close to giving up at that stage.
“But because of the fundraiser, we could give jobs to our tuk-tuk drivers to tear down the whole garden and rebuild everything. We had to make smart solutions to make it look just as big, and we had to spend most of our savings to build the place up again. It took a year, and now we all agree – it now looks even bigger, and it is such an upgrade.”
It was not only in the garden where creative solutions were needed however and to conquer adversity and keep their business running the couple has also opened a nursery. In addition to the nursery, they continue to run their Eco-Shop and Refill Station. “But now with no tourists, it has become a Refill Station for expats and locals, and we have kept the shop open during the whole process.”
Katrine stresses her tactic is survival now to thrive tomorrow.
“We are now able to have guests again as of June 1,” she says. “We strongly believe that by opening again now, we will be able to survive the rest of the time before Cambodia opens up for tourism again. Because when we have tourists again – WE WILL BE HERE! With open arms.”