A Made-in-china ‘Balearic-style’ Development For Cambodia Southern Coast

It became the symbol of mass tourism development in Europe in the 1960s but particularly in the 1970s. Spain Balearic Islands used to welcome 400,000 tourists in 1960. A decade later, the islands registered already over three million arrivals, seven million at the end of the 1980s. Last year, the islands welcomed close to 11.4 million foreign visitorsLast year Balearic Islands had a total of 2,644 commercial accommodation representing 197,524 rooms and 424,636 beds. Balearic Islands represent today 37% of all accommodation capacities in Spain.

The mass tourism development in the Balearics generated a complete transformation of the archipelago’s landscape. According to a study released in 2014, un just half a century, the development of coastal tourist resorts conducted to an intensification of urban areas. As a result, the proportion of land covered by an urban landscape has risen from 32.3 km2 in 1956 (1% of the Balearics’ surface), to 309.8 km2 in 2006 (6.2%) (Source : Islands Studies Review reference to Murray, Blázquez & Pons, 2008; Pons & Rullan, 2014).

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Will Cambodia’s southern coast experience a similar fate? The answer is to be nuanced. The entire coast stretches on roughly 275 km from the Thai Cambodian border at Trat/Koh Kong Province to Kep/Ha Tien in Vietnam covering an area of 17,237 km2. Total population is reaching one million while poverty percentage is around 19%. Six zones have been designated as protected areas.

However Cambodia has big ambitions to turn its coastal area into a major seaside tourism destination. According to the website “Developmentadvisor”, more than 180,000 hectares on 28 of Cambodia’s 64 islands were reclassified as state private property for 31 companies seeking land concessions between 2008 and 2010, government sub-decrees reveal. Most of the concessions have been given to Chinese firms with a handful of companies being from Russia or Cambodia.

The first project to kick off ground was a massive redevelopment at Bokor National Park, a mountain which used to be during the French colonial time until the mid-60s a favourite hill resort retreat for wealthy visitors. In 2008, a development project for a casino, hotels and residences was announced. Construction of the road and resort turned concrete with the opening in 2012 of the Thansur Bokor Highland Resort hotel with 540 rooms and a casino. More is however to come as Sokha Property,

Cambodia’s largest hotel and real estate company behind the project, vowed to invest one billion US dollars over the next 15 years including hundreds of villas and houses, residences, a shopping mall, a Fantasyland, a second 700-room 5-star hotel as well as two golf courses. Completion of the first phase construction on the 500 hectare plateau should take place around 2022. With the completion in the longer term of Bokor Hill City- with an envisioned population of 100,000-maby unanswered questions subsist over the environmental impact on Bokor National Park, which is likely to make way for the city’s development.

Bokor transformation remains relatively small compared to ambitious plans in Koh Kong Island. Near to another national park, the Cambodian government approved in 2008 a 36,000 hectare area (half the size of Singapore area) to a Chinese construction and real estate company, the Chinese Union Development Group. The massive development is set within the boundaries of the 171,250-hectare Botum Sakor National Park, one of the 34 richest repositories of fauna and flora on the planet, according to the conservation organization Wildlife Alliance.

To date, this is Cambodia largest investment in tourism at a price tag of US$3.8 billion. Officials say that the development will include a golf course, airport, seaport, several hotels, a casino (already opened with a hotel) and several large-scale commercial zones set to take place over the next 25 years. Polemics are high with the development as the Chinese company evicted 1,000 local villagers to make way to their plan with same refusing to go.

The Union Development resort is also in conflict with local population due to further land around the resort to make way for a huge sugar plantation, as well as real estate, commercial and agricultural projects. The project is very much looking like a piece of China development in the middle of Cambodia with a target for mass tourism from China but also other Asian countries such as Thailand or Singapore thanks to the Casino presence. Botum Sakor development could turn the area into the second largest tourism area after Siem Reap according to some Cambodian officials.

Across Sihanoukville, Morakot Island (Koh Pos or Snake Island) will see a massive development of luxury properties over 116 hectares of land driven by KPIG, a Russian real estate company, Originally planned to be ready by 2016, the project should not be ready before 2018/2019 with a total investment of US$ one billion.

The project comprises two 4-star hotels, one 5-star hotel, one “6-star” hotel, a casino, bungalows, villas for private residents, and various infrastructure such as roads. A bridge already opened to link the island to the mainland.

The coastal line between Kampot and Kep, stretching over 42 km of land, will only see the development of low density small hotel units. Same can be seen on the multitude of islets and islands along the coast. Song Saa Resort Island is a perfect example of an eco-friendly resort. The private island is home to a 27-room resort, probably one of the most exclusive resort experiences for an island in Southeast Asia. In Koh Russey, across Sihanoukville, Alila Hotels is building a luxurious eco-friendly resort, comprising a total of 227 units. The project broke ground at the end of 2014 and is due to completion by 2017.

The various projects will then push the total number of rooms from 3,939 rooms in commercial accommodation to 20,000 in 2020. It still a far outcry of the Balearic Islands. However, Cambodia southern coast’s development is still in its infancy.

The Asia Development Bank released back in 2012 a study over tourism evolution along Cambodia’s Southern Coast. According to the study, total tourist arrivals (int’l + dom.) could grow by 70% until 2019, from 1.86 million to 3.16 million. If various infrastructure plans are developed (such as a ferry terminal for a Kampot-Phu Quoc sea link or the redevelopment of Kep Crab Market), total arrivals by 2019 could reach 3.89 million, up by 108.5%. 

By including Sihanoukville forecasts – which is not part of the ADB study-, total arrivals to the four Coastal Provinces would reach 4.5 million without ADB projects and 5.5 million including ADB projects’ funding.

ADB forecasts however do not include the massive development projects at Dara Sakor Resort in Koh Kong Province, at Bokor National Park or on the islands around Sihanoukville.