Despite a large increase in foreign tourists and tourism-generated revenue, Cambodia’s poverty-stricken population is seeing very few of the profits, according to sources familiar with the industry.
The country’s minister of tourism, Tong Khon, said recently that the number of foreign tourists visiting Cambodia in the first nine months of 2010 had risen nearly 15 percent to 1.8 million from a year ago.
“The increase of tourists is due to our many important tourist attractions, such as the ancient ruins of the Angkor Wat complex, our beaches, and our eco-tourism, as well as attractions in the southwest regions of the country,” he said.
He also cited the rare freshwater dolphins of the Mekong River and mangrove forests of Koh Kong as large tourist draws, adding that improved road infrastructure, increased security, and economic recovery in Asia had all contributed to the growth of the Cambodian tourist industry.
A recent report from the Department of Tourism said income from tourism now accounts for 10 to 12 percent of Cambodia’s nearly U.S. $11 billion Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
But Van Peou, president of the Cambodia-based Informal Economics, said Cambodia’s tourism industry is regulated in such a way that prevents the increased inflow of foreign tourist dollars from benefiting the population.
“The airlines, the tour bus companies, and the hotels are operated mostly by [the tourists’] fellow nationals, who are the ones to truly benefit from this increase,” Van Peou said.
“The lives of local residents who deal with the tourists haven’t improved much from the growth … The only income I can see [Cambodians earning] is from the sale of admittance tickets to see temples,” he said.
Son Chhay, a parliamentarian from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said that Asian tourists in particular, who make up the large majority of visitors to Cambodia, are more likely to spend their money on services linked to their home countries or that are provided by fellow nationals.
“Whatever they spend on their trips mostly flows into the hands of the companies of their fellow countrymen, such as airfare, tour bus tickets, and restaurant and hotel bills,” he said.
Chan Sophal, of the Association of Cambodian Economists, says very little of the nearly U.S. $1 billion in profits from the tourist industry goes to the state.
“Angkor Wat has been run and controlled by a private company,” he said, referring to the Sokimex conglomerate, widely believed to be linked to members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“All the airlines belong to foreign companies. Most tour companies, hotels, and restaurants are also owned by foreigners. Therefore the income does not go to Cambodia,” he said.
Little gain from increase
Workers in the tourism industry say that they have seen little gain from the increased number of visitors.
“This year it’s harder for me to make money than the previous year because there are less European tourists and more competitors who quit working in the hotels to try this business,” said Ly Kitya, a motor tricycle driver in Siem Reap.
Another tricycle driver, who asked to remain anonymous, shared a similar observation.
“These days, most tourists join tours. They aren’t the type of tourist traveling on their own that tend to want to see the Great Lake [Tonle Sap] or to go for a massage here and there.”
Chan Dy, manager of the Apsara Hotel in Siem Reap, agreed that visitors are far more likely to join tour groups, to the detriment of local guides and hawkers.
“Guests staying at my hotel are on the rise, but since they join tours, they don’t spend much on other things,” she said.
A source within the Cambodian Department of Tourism said that in the first nine months of the year, more than 400,000 travelers arrived via flights to Phnom Penh International Airport and nearly 500,000 to Siem Reap Airport—increases of 11 percent and 17 percent from 2009, respectively.
The department expects the number of tourists to reach 2.4 million by the end of 2010, up from 2.1 million the year before.
During a Sept. 27 speech commemorating World Tourism Day, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged to “continue to accelerate [tourism] sector activity in order to help develop socioeconomically and work towards achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goal.”
The goal to be achieved by 2015 includes, among other objectives, eradicating extreme poverty and developing a global partnership for development
Cambodia will host the 30th ASEAN Tourism Forum in Phnom Penh from Jan. 15 to 21 next year.
Reported by Kim Peou for RFA’s Khmer service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.