How to Turn Cambodia’s Sihanoukville Into More Than Just a Sun, Sea and Gambling Destination?

Jason Yamanaka is a Hawaii-native US citizen, who settled four years ago in Sihanoukville. He runs the Reef Resort, a small property in town. Jason has ambitions to change the perception of Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s largest seaside resort destination. But he doesn’t quite know how.

Located along the Gulf of Thailand, Sihanoukville is rapidly turning into one of Cambodia’s most popular destinations thanks to its pristine beaches and multitude of islets/islands facing the fast-developing seaside city. That should please Jason as an hotelier. But not so much. “I would love to give another image of Sihanoukville. We are too much centered today into backpackers or beach travellers who are just coming for sun and fun. I think Sihanoukville has definitely more to offer,” explains the young hotelier.

What could lure different types of travellers? Ask Yamanaka about something which could potentially attract visitors beside a casual beach holiday and he suddenly becomes quiet. “Interesting question,” he whispers. But so far without an answer.

He should not be blamed for his reluctance to answer. Sihanoukville offers indeed little charm from the first view. Even the Lonely Planet Guide warns his readers of the absence of attractions that the city has beside beaches. The city itself consists mostly of a couple of roads lined with houses and buildings constructed in an uninspired, dull style. At dawn, the monotony of the streets is only interrupted by bright neon splashing from the facades of casinos and karaoke clubs.

Sihanoukville remains however one of the most popular destinations in Cambodia. The coastal area (four provinces) generated close to 2.5 million domestic and 0.61 million international arrivals last year. This represents a total market share of 20% of all inland tourist arrivals in the country. Sihanoukville Province represents half of all arrivals on the Southern Coast. According to data from Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism, the province received 1.16 million domestic and 0.36 million international travellers last year.

First half 2016 provincial tourism figures point to a continuous increase of travellers to Sihanoukville, establishing the coastal city as a premiere beach destination in the Kingdom. Tourist arrivals grew nearly 17% during the first half of the year, topping already a million visitors, of which 223,000 came from abroad.

While the area remains popular with domestic travellers, international figures are buoyed by the sharp rise in arrivals from China (up by 14.5%) and to a lesser extent from Russia and Vietnam. Growth from China and Vietnam were partly fueled by new non-stop air connections to Sihanoukville airport. Booming casino business also helped confirming Sihanoukville as a major entertainment destination. The province has currently 15 casinos and licences have been given to another five. More worrying however is the small increase of arrivals from other nationalities. They only grew in the first half of 2016 by 3%.

However, this could change rapidly. According to authorities of the Provincial Tourism Department, better accessibility and the development of upscale accommodation as well as condominiums could change the face of Sihanoukville. While casinos will continue to attract a lot of lower to upper middle class visitors, the multiplication of upscale investments will help sprucing up the city’s image.

Sihanoukville iconic Independence Hotel opened in 1964

The Phnom Penh Post reported recently in an article about rising investments in real estate. The city has caught the attention of major property developers. In early 2016, a Cambodian real estate property and hotel conglomerate broke ground on The Sunshine Bay, a 31-storey mixed development with three towers comprising 900 units, water parks and bars, to be located on Independence beach. Another property, D’Seaview, a 735-unit condominium backed by a Singaporean company, is due to emerge near Sokha Beach. Both condominiums should be achieved by 2018.

Talking to the Phnom Penh Post, Ross Wheble, country director for global real estate consultancy firm Knight Frank, explained that Sihanoukville’s first real condominium projects are aiming to bring international standards to the city and turn around the city’s fortunes.

Sihanoukville’s popular beach, Otres, located 7.5 km away from the city centre, could turn into the new high-end leisure area. Still perceived today as a paradise beach, it could rapidly turn into a “Krabi-style” beach area with buildings lining next to each other along the coastal road. The biggest project to date—which is still waiting for a start—is the development of 3,000 hotel rooms and condominium units along with a casino and entertainment centre. The project is in the hands of Queenco, a casino company listed in London. “Otres Beach will cater to the more upmarket/family tourist segment as opposed to the backpacker market associated with Sihanoukville,” explained Wheble.

Meanwhile, there is still a need to give Sihanoukville a distinctive identity, a kind of branding of the destination. Spectacular street lighting at night could turn the city centre into a more attractive place to visit, the multiplication of alternative, art-oriented coffee shops could make Sihanoukville city a bit more fun to discover. Yamanaka created already a workshop and workspace downtown for creative workers while a French native opened the first gay bar in town, OGA Bar, which organizes regularly theme parties.

But large art and cultural events in town would also create the buzz. Above all, Sihanoukville should define what is the essence of that city. Looking at Sihanoukville history, at its development could help shaping that identity.

The place was hacked out of the jungle in 1955 to build a deep-sea port. It then became a city in 1964 and as such is Cambodia’s youngest urban area. Why not to capitalize on that fact? There are, for example, a few buildings left from the early Sihanouk years with the typical “New Khmer Architecture” style which gave Cambodia its distinctive mark in the world of architecture in the 1960s—most notably the National Bank of Cambodia in town and the Independence Hotel, an iconic property of Cambodia’s golden years under Prince Sihanouk. “It is an exciting place because of the people living there. You have every kind of personality co-habitating here,” adds Yamanaka.