Avoiding Collateral Damage with Chinese Tourists in Cambodia?

Cambodia, China, investments, Sihanoukville

Chinese travellers at the Nagaworld Hotel in Phnom Penh

The latest report of the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism shows that total Chinese arrivals to the Kingdom has grown by over 70% in the first eight months of the year, already surpassing the entire year 2017. Is it only good news ? Many Cambodian express openly their opinion that Chinese tourism is getting out of control.

There was a paradoxical situation at the recently hosted 2nd Cambodia Travel Mart in Phnom Penh. While many of the topics were about China, Chinese professionals’ presence was very discreet, almost invisible. The official account of the CTM pointed to the presence of only six Chinese buyers (+ 3 from Hong Kong) from a total of 100 delegates. The largest delegation came actually from India with 24 buyers present at the show.

If the Chinese presence was extremely limited at CTM, the shadow of China is however everywhere. The increasingly strong relations between the Kingdom of Cambodia and China PRC is visible. China is the largest investor in Cambodia and now the biggest tourism market for the country.

According to Cambodia Ministry of Tourism latest statistic report for the first eight months of 2018, Chinese travellers already had exceeded the full-year 2017’s record.

More than 1.27 million Chinese tourists had visited Cambodia during the January-August period this year, up 72 percent over the same period last year, the report said. China is now the biggest source of foreign tourists to the country with a market share of 32.4 percent of all international arrivals. While total arrivals from China to Cambodia reached 1,21 million for 2017, the Minister of Tourism Dr. Thong Khon is now expecting at least 1.7 million Chinese tourists in 2018 and up to 2.5 million in 2020.

Of course, Chinese bring money and fill up hotel rooms and entertainment venues in the country. But are they only doing that? ” It is a big challenge as the growth is extremely rapid and it has also an impact on infrastructure and social structures,” admits Visothy So, Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Tourism.

Many Cambodians however that the situation is getting out of control as they feel Chinese presence like an invasion. It is true that in contrary to other countries in Southeast Asia, Chinese travellers are not just purely consuming tourists. They are also part of this vast movement of investments in Cambodia tourism sector by China PRC.

While in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, Chinese investments mostly concern hotels, some shops and entertainment venues, along the coastal area, the flow of Chinese travellers is accompanied by a de facto colonisation of the southern region of the Kingdom. Condominiums, supermarkets, restaurants, entertainment venues such as casinos, bars and karaoke are increasingly Chinese-owned.

In a town such as Sihanoukville, things seem to go out of control. A young Cambodian explained that he was chased away with his family from a public beach by a group of Chinese people who claim that the place belonged to them. Facebook pages owned by Khmer people are showing regularly car accidents or troubles done by Chinese present in the Kingdom. A former French bar owner explained that Sihanoukville safety is going down as Chinese mafia are killing each others and that violent extorsion is conducted against locals by new Chinese owners of land and properties.

It is said that rental prices are up by 5 to 8 times in the area since a year. With the consequence that many locals are forced to leave the area to resettle somewhere else. And that in the long term, violence against Chinese travellers could flare due to resentment.

For the Minister of Tourism Dr Thong Khon, the remarkable increase in Chinese tourists to Cambodia is due to close ties, more direct flights between both countries and a rise in Chinese middle class. However, this is not on China urban middle class that Cambodia seems to rely when targeting this market. Looking at Chinese tourists in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or Sihanoukville, most of them are parts of groups and not really urbanites. They mostly come for gambling, entertainment and in the south for the beach. Few have actually true interest into Cambodia culture. As an example, as Phnom Penh mega casino NagaWorld is filled from early morning by Chinese visitors, the National Museum has little Chinese visitors strolling around the sumptuous Angkorian sculptures.

Regarding the situation in Sihanoukville, it sounds that domestic travellers as well as some other foreign markets are now deserting the destination. It seems that the Ministry of Tourism starts to feel worried about the current evolution along the Southern Coast. “we are working on solutions with other ministries such as the Minister of Interior or the Minister of Development and Planning. We also have regular meetings with Chinese authorities to evaluate the situation,” explains Visothy So.

The situation in Sihanoukville could then serve as the unfortunate example of an uncontrolled development. The next government act is to now try to reverse the way Sihanoukville tourism is heading. That will not be an easy task but can still be achieved with strong will to act. The government of the country should also control that the Sihanoukville case is not reproduced in other parts of the country.

Many professionals in the travel industry fear that Kampot and Kep -also along the coast- will experience a similar fate to Sihanoukville in the near future. The Cambodian Royal Government should now prove that they are wrong.