Norwegian couple Katrine Solhaug and husband Simen Julner have reopened their Babel Guesthouse in Siam Reap after Covid-19 travel restrictions and road construction in Cambodia forced them to close over a year.
In an interview with the media Khmer time, the couple talk about their struggles during the pandemic and how, through innovative measures, they were able to reinvent their business to survive the hardships caused by the pandemic.
Katrine arrived in Siem Reap in 2007 to run a guesthouse for a year and hired her boyfriend in Norway to come help her. The couple decided to stay and took over the ownership of Babel Guesthouse in 2011 with a focus on responsible tourism and only employing local workers, offering English classes and the possibility of being sponsored for higher education. .
Katrine also brought Norwegian tourism students to Siem Reap as part of their tourism degree and told the Khmer Times: “We got cooperation from the Norwegian University of Hotel Management and traveled back and forth to Norway for a long time. a few years to get there. The couple ran the guesthouse and provided Norwegian students with accommodation during their three-month course while teaching them how to run a guesthouse with a focus on responsible tourism.
At Babel Guesthouse, Katrine and Simen have also organized live music events, private meetings and many other activities in their large tropical garden. In 2018, they opened Cambodia’s first eco-friendly boutique and charging station, offering natural and eco-friendly alternatives to plastic for travelers. on the spot. “Then came the Covid. Overnight we became EMPTY. We have two children under the age of four and no close family here in Siem Reap. We had to make the decision: do we stay or go back to a safe country in Norway, ”Katrine explains.
The couple decided to stay and organized a big fundraiser for their twelve employees and sixteen tuk-tuk drivers who all depended on Babel Guesthouse for their survival. But if the pandemic did not cause enough distress, a road construction project was also started which resulted in the reduction of 5 meters of the large garden of Babel Guesthouse and the couple were on the verge of giving up at this point.
“But thanks to fundraising, we were able to give work to our tuk-tuk drivers to demolish the entire garden and rebuild everything. We had to design smart solutions to make it that big, and we had to spend most of our savings to rebuild the place. It took a year, and now we all agree – it now looks even bigger, and it’s such an upgrade. “
However, it wasn’t just in the garden where creative solutions were needed and to overcome adversity and keep their business running, the couple also opened a nursery. In addition to the nursery, they continue to manage their eco-boutique and their charging station. “But now, without tourists, it has become a charging station for expats and locals, and we kept the store open during the whole process.”
Katrine emphasizes that her tactic is to survive now to prosper tomorrow.
“We can receive guests again from June 1,” she says. “We firmly believe that by reopening now, we can survive the rest of the time before Cambodia opens up to tourism again. Because when we have tourists again – WE WILL BE HERE! With open arms. “