This month, the Miss International Tourism Cambodia pageant puts the spotlight on the Kingdom’s brightest and most beautiful women. Hosted by APlus Asia Network, the competition will help catapult the country onto the international stage. Writer Joanna Mayhew speaks with country director Eric Lim to find out more. Photography by Rudi Towiro.

What is the Miss Tourism International pageant?
This pageant has been in existence since 1994. It encourages participants from 80 countries—from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the US — to compete every year at the grand finals. The winner of the Miss Tourism International Cambodia pageant will represent the country and visit Malaysia [for the world finals] to promote culture, friendship and tourism.

What are you looking for in a winner?
Someone that stands out in the international environment. We’re hoping the winner will have a combination of not necessarily the beauty and charm and poise, and all that, but also be someone that is intelligent. This is an international competition so the guidelines are very strict. They will be judged on beauty, charm, poise, talent, traditional costumes, formal wear, evening attire and also live personality interviews.

What is the selection process?
We’ve got about 100 people applying, [but] we only select 24 to compete in the finals. Last year, 40% of applicants failed to meet requirements, [particularly] height. Some are very good looking, they’re talented, but unfortunately they failed to meet the height requirement. What we’re trying to do is encourage not necessarily models [but] women that are smart to apply. Last year 30% of applicants [were] high school or university graduates, working, [or had] their own businesses. This year we hope to increase that portion to 50%. We’re [also] trying to encourage participants to come in from the provinces.

What do the Cambodia qualifier and grand finals involve?
The [Cambodia] event will be a dinner and show [with] four rounds of attire. The main titles are the winner, first runner up and second runner up. After that we have Miss Photogenic, Miss Heritage, Miss Friendship, Miss Dream Girl and Miss Elegance. In Malaysia, judging criteria will be about the same. The person qualified to represent Cambodia can expect to go through the same thing, just on a much bigger scale. They tour Malaysia [and] do a lot of charity work, visit the handicapped, hospitals, and also sponsors. It [is] interesting to note that a lot of the judging is done before the actual day. While they’re being interviewed, they’re being judged.

How will finalists benefit?
There are a lot of opportunities we’re providing women. We’re hoping each finalist will receive at least $1,000 in cash prizes and scholarships. All finalists will have an opportunity to enhance themselves further by learning a foreign language, [going] into fashion schools [or] completion of a four-year degree. We will [also] help them find permanent jobs with reputable companies. We are trying to provide women with a better life.

Does this objectify women?
Remember this is a pageant. It’s not a modeling show; we’re not parading women. There are many pageants around the world and I believe all have the same objective. They’re looking to elevate that individual from a particular country and best represent [it], and that’s what we’re trying to do. Some of [the women] don’t come from rich backgrounds, so going to university, even though you’re smart, you may not have the financial capability.

What brought it here?
Last year was the first Cambodia pageant. The world pageant holder looked into Southeast Asia. They’re trying to encourage participation from lesser-developed countries. This pageant is not about making money. I believe it’s our responsibility to empower women to compete in the international environment. We want to [elevate] the status of Cambodian women today, while also showcase Cambodia as a destination rich in heritage, diversity, tourism and friendliness.

What are Cambodia’s chances this year?
Well with 80 countries, competition is stiff. This year we have some very good candidates that are better in many ways compared to last year. Women today really look after themselves. I would say a lot of them are taller—maybe because people are becoming richer, they’re getting good food. We’ll always get better [candidates], because now they see this pageant as an opportunity. There’s an onus of, I want to try my best because if I’m one of the finalists at least I get to better myself. I believe if the opportunity is there, well, who knows?

What will this mean for the country?
It will first of all drive tourism. Indirectly it will also encourage some economic and investment opportunities. When the winners go to Malaysia, they have press conferences to tell people about the wonders of the Kingdom of Cambodia, about Khmer culture and how beautiful Cambodia is. A lot of people have negative thoughts about Cambodia, but if we have an individual that can tell people about it, word will get around and people will say, hey, I’m sure it’s a great place.

Miss Tourism International Cambodia takes place at NagaWorld in Phnom Penh on Nov. 23. Tickets are $55. Visit www.misstourismcambodia.com.