Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tourism Bust in Cambodia?

This is my personal assessment and prediction of sorts based on my 30 years in the international tourism business and on numbers published by the Ministry of Tourism and some other sources, e. g. The Travel Weekly , and most importantly based on numbers obtained from the booking portals.

There was a brief analysis posted on Facebook recently that in my opinion did not quite make the cut in verified facts.

Cambodian statistics are notoriously unreliable. Sometimes I get the impression it is like reading tea leaves. If you see how they collect numbers for the Sihanoukville market, in which I am an active participant, I suspect it is not much different for the other larger markets, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

In total there were about 4.5 million visitors; that includes both business travelers and tourists. The sector showed a healthy increase of 7% over 2014. This is an outstanding result anywhere in the world. Of course, Cambodia cannot expect to have increases as in the beginning of substantial tourist arrivals starting in 2004 or so, with increases of 17%. The old adage applies: low numbers large increases. Now these numbers all have to be taken with a grain of salt. A hefty 75% come from other Asian countries, most notably Vietnam and China. What is of interest to European/American-owned tourist businesses is the number of European and North American arrivals, namely approximately 750,000, with the U. S. leading with 192,000.

Looking at Sihanoukville, the MOT published 1.5 million visitors, of which 400,000 were foreigners, in other words, 1.1 million were Cambodians visiting the coastal city. A rough estimate published was 150,000 Western tourists for 2015. This figure was mentioned in an interview with the local tourism official. Again, how do they count the numbers? Hotels are required to file statistics with the tourism department but very few, if any at all, do.  As mentioned elsewhere there is an oversupply of accommodations available. Booking.com features 179 properties. There is new construction of hotels going on everywhere in town. These can never be run economically in the foreseeable future with an average length of stay of 3.8 days. This figure is, of course, also somewhat misleading as local visitors usually stay only one night, and Asian tourists between two and four. Among the Western tourists the large segment of backpackers stays from 0 to 1 night in town in order to head off to the islands where they stay longer; there is no statistic on that. They are all counted as Sihanoukville tourists. Older tourists tend to just sample the islands for a couple of nights as they do not want to forgo the comforts of hotel rooms in town. And these people tend to stay longer, from 4 to 7 days. The number of people staying beyond that may be small but some spend the entire cold winter months here, albeit in rented condos if they stay at least 3 months which are usually rented only for that minimum period of time.

Cambodia and Sihanoukville in particular used to be an extension to a SE Asian trip, but that has changed over time. It has now become a destination in its own right, e. g. 3 days Phnom Penh, 4 days Siem Reap, and 4 days Sihanoukville, not counting those that visit the Cardamon mountains, Rattanakiri, etc.

Booking.com, the largest booking portal in the world with about 750,000 hotels in their database and with a sophisticated software to steer potential guests to the hotel that meets their criteria, also have the most reliable statistics as far as bookings for Sihanoukville are concerned. They report an increase of 140% from November 2015 to the beginning of February 2016. Agoda.com the second largest for the SE Asian market shows a 17% increase in 2015 over 2014, and a 33% increase for the period November ’15 to Feb. ’16. That booking.com outweighs Agoda is probably proportionate to their market share. These facts contradict the common perception that there is a tourism bust in Sihanoukville or in Cambodia in general, because by extension what goes for Sihanoukville as a minor market would apply to the larger markets as well. The complaints about a slow high season are possibly coming from entrepreneurs that contributed to the oversupply of accommodations and gastronomical enterprises.

It is also evident that the age of visitors that stay in Sihanoukville has increased as have families with children during vacation times. The young back- and flashpackers go to the islands as prices in Sihanoukville have increased along with the standard of hotels there, making Sihanoukville more unattractive for this group. However, the islands may undergo at least a stagnation for a while as the adequate beach front land available for the sort of guesthouses now dotting the islands has become scarce, not to mention the evident environmental problems facing the islands already. The uncertain legal situation with soft titles makes development there only attractive for the more adventurous risk-takers.

Sihanoukville has taken a lot of flak online for being a dump with trash all over the place whether it is on Ochheuteal beach or along the streets. Things may be looking up as groups of garbage pickers have been spotted on occasion, and trash containers have been put up. Maybe the Tourist Department is now taking its role more seriously because it is a fact that during the past 8 years or so nothing much has really been done about the deplorable state of the beach in one of the most beautiful bays in Asia. One also has to wonder about the role of the hotel association within this framework. Surely, a lot of their work is done behind closed in sessions with the Tourist Department, but then again, nothing much could seen in terms of results. I worked with the Chamber of Commerce here with about the same results.

The internet is a bane and a boon for the tourist business at the same time. Reports of a crime wave are blown out of proportion mostly by the social media. Handbag snatching is encountered in every poor country in the world.  The same goes for corrupt cops shaking down hapless tourists. And it is true that it used to be popular destination, and to some degree still is, for sex tourists. Their presence, however, is mostly confined to certain parts of town. And yes, countries with such liberal visa requirements also attract the more dubious characters from the Western world. Naturally, retirees come here as their dollar stretches a little more here than in their home country, notwithstanding the current rise in its value against the Euro, the Australian dollar, and the Pound.

And for the outlook; what does it hold in store for the future of the tourist business in Cambodia, and Sihanoukville in particular, in view of terrorism, economic uncertainty, and tighter budgets due to currency factors?

One look at Thailand will show that terrorism scares people off for about 3 months after which time they start coming back simply for lack of alternate destinations. I have seen the same phenomenon in my past experience. Travelers coming to SE Asia is a clientele that usually does not go the Caribbean or Africa. Thailand reports healthy increases in tourist arrivals. Another aspect is that this terrorism and the underlying conflict is central more to the Middle East, Europe and the North Atlantic. Of course, a terrorist bomb on an airliner could hit anywhere. Apart from Malaysian Airlines, and the reasons for the disappearance are still unknown, no Arab or Asian airlines have been targeted. European security measures have become very strict and air travel is actually up despite those potential threats. It appears as though this is not a significant deterrent for people to travel to Asia.

European economies are wavering on the brink of stagnation, except for the German economic powerhouse. This uncertain future of the economy affects, regrettable as always, the lower segment of society, in other words, middle and upper middle class people have less to fear in this respect and will continue to travel. One should not forget that Europeans on the whole enjoy unparalleled vacation time – often 4 and more weeks of paid vacation time per year. Once November rolls around there people get so tired of the dreary and bleak weather they pack their bags and off they go to warmer climates. Of course, the Euro has lost significant value from a height of $1.35 to $1.08 right now, but facts contradict the overall effect of this devaluation. The price of oil has dropped to almost historic levels and this makes itself felt on people's pocketbooks, offsetting the lower parity. People travel just as much. Americans make up the majority of Western tourists. Their economy is humming along and they are not affected by a declining parity. The only problem with Americans is that they have very short paid vacations. This is why they really start to travel seriously once they are retired. One group severely affected are Russian tourists. The ruble is has lost more than 100% against the dollar. This was immediately felt last year and the beginning of this high season did not show any improvement. However, it seems that now that wide-ranging travel restrictions are in place there - Turkey, their most popular destination, is out, the Ukraine is out, government employees are not allowed to travel outside the country - Russians can only go to Asia. There is a slightly brighter outlook for Russian arrivals right now, but only time will tell.

So what would affect Cambodia? Some say it is a one-time destination because if you have seen Angkor Wat once, what else is there. Well, seasoned travelers will tell those people there is plenty more to see, especially in the northern provinces. I have no statistics on hand to show how many repeat visitors come to Cambodia but from personal experience it is around 5% - and that’s only Western tourists. Seeing as there was still substantial growth last year – even if the 7% might actually be only 6% (?) – I personally don’t see that the curve flatlines to 0% or even go below that. The Asian market is by no means exhausted yet and despite China’s problems there are still enough affluent Chinese people with enough disposable income to travel.


And, last but not least, the country continues to enjoy overall growth in all sectors, and is a very safe and politically stable country.  Travel advisories put out by embassies are mostly there to cover their own backsides. A coup like in Thailand will not happen here in the foreseeable future. Cambodia has arrived on the political world scene, notwithstanding Sam Rainsy’s efforts, as evidenced by the recent World Economic Summit in Davos, the upcoming ASEAN-U.S. meeting, and other meeting with world leaders. This enhances the current government’s stature and this always has ramifications beyond politics, e. g. the common perception of Cambodia among other countries’ consumers.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

And here is another good one….

I mentioned those flat-out unbelievable excuses Cambodians tend to make. Now the Prime Minister chimed in with one of his own.

A Cambodian-American doctor who had returned to Cambodia recently criticized the Cambodian medical profession. He maintained they are mostly ill-qualified to treat even minor illnesses. As anybody who ever visited one of the many clinics dotting the Cambodian landscape can tell nothing could be more true. Sometimes these doctors prescribe anti-depressants for headaches. A doctor who examined my step-daughter a few years back diagnosed air and water in the abdomen. My daughter had complained about severe abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. As is normal in Cambodia, he prescribed 2 hours of IV, 2 days of observation at his clinic and after that she was sent home with a cocktail of meds we didn’t know what they were for.

When she got to the U. S. we saw a gastroenterologist who immediately diagnosed a certain syndrome and started treatment which eventually ended in surgery. If she had not gotten that care she would have died.

Recently, a woman had an accident with severe head trauma. The husband took her to a large Cambodian hospital. The doctors said she need a CT scan of the head but they needed to pay first. The husband, a poor farmer, didn’t have the money and begged for help. The hospital staff, e. g. the doctors were adamant. Long story short, the woman died.

There are countless examples like these occurring in Cambodia. The medical profession through their associated had the nerve to demand an apology from the doctor who, needless to say, refused.

Now comes the good part. A couple of days ago, the media reported that the Prime Minister went to Singapore for a check-up. What? He is now a real big fan of Facebook and people took to this page asking why he went to Singapore? Well, he said he went there because Cambodia doesn’t have the necessary equipment yet. Ah, isn’t that interesting? He went on to defend the Cambodian medical profession and said, indeed, he had more check-ups on a quarterly and semi-annual basis all conducted by Cambodian doctors. Mr. Prime Minister, couldn’t you have come up with a better excuse? That is just so damn lame that not even middle-school students will believe that.


And why please do all the people with some money go to Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and even the U. S. or Europe for medical treatment. Because 80% (my estimate) of Cambodian doctors are quacks. Some clinics are only operated by nurses; the patients don’t even know that this is only a nurse not a doctor with a medical degree. Such was and is the state of Cambodian health care to this day.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Lawlessness

This is practically a sequence to the previous post. Cambodians have a penchant for cockfights. As in most countries, they are illegal but they nevertheless have an avid following especially in the countryside.

Police often look the other way but sometimes they do raid a fight. The other day in a district in Prey Veng province the police surrounded a fight to stop it and possibly seize the cocks.

In the process the district police chief drew his service weapon and fired a shot hitting an innocent bystander who was holding his child in his arms. News reports say the bullet hit the man in the temple and exited on the other side. The bystander was felled as if hit by lighning dropping his baby to the ground.

The police chief stated he only fired a warning shot in the air and the bullet must have ricocheted from a tree. This explanation is a typical Cambodian excuse. They come up with the most implausible excuses you can think of, often insulting the intelligence of people who can think logically. How can a bullet ricochet even if it is not directly shot in the air? If the gun is pointed even slightly upwards it is absolutely impossible for the bullet to ricochet back downwards hitting a bystander in such way that the projectile would enter the temple and exit the temple on the other side. It was a shot clearly fired at shoulder height, possibly with outstretched arm. It doesn’t take a criminologist to come to this conclusion.

Why would a policeman draw his weapon to break up a cockfight? This sounds just as if it had happened in the U. S. where trigger-happy cops are wont to shoot and kill unarmed African-Americans for minor infractions.


The local court invited the chief for an interrogation but the chief did not show up saying he was sick. This policeman needs to be arrested for at least involuntary manslaughter. If no further news will be read or heard within the next couple of weeks it is safe to assume that the affair will be swept under the carpet. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Cambodians and the Law

Cambodians have a deep-seated disrespect of all laws and regulations unless it involves their hallowed traditional rules of preserving their daughters’ virginity and arranged marriages as well as the ceremonies on all Buddhist holidays, which they celebrate with great aplomb, somber expressions and humble demeanor, alas without great conviction (the elderly Khmer whom I very much respect will hopefully excuse my cynicism).

Much has been written on forums and blogs, not to mention the local newspapers both English-language and Khmer, and the social media, foremost among them that huge advancement of Western civilization and now world-wide culture, Facebook, about the new traffic law, as it is commonly called in online parlance.

I do not want to repeat all those gripes written and otherwise expressed both orally and electronically, but this law is symptomatic of the state of the Cambodian mind in terms of how to live together within certain boundaries and in a civilized manner. Man laid down rules of how to live together in a group, tribe, or later in states since the beginning of time. Without these rules or laws anarchy would rein.

Now to look at Cambodian roads one might get the impression that this sector of Cambodian life is indeed somewhat anarchic, or perhaps only chaotic. But not only there, in fact in most other cases they flout what officialdom had prescribed. They build houses wherever and in any fashion they want, they settle on land without asking who the owner is, they believe they are due a share of something whether they earned it or not. Polygamy is outlawed in Cambodia. Nevertheless, wealthy, mostly elderly, man have a young and beautiful mistress, semi-officially called the second wife or small wife (propuen chong).This attitude and self-righteousness is the cause of and fuels many conflicts. And then, of course, if a law prohibits certain actions there is always money that can pave the way around a law so officials may look the other way or in direct violation of the law even sanction such illegal actions. A good example is the former practice of granting concessions for large pieces of land for rubber plantations. The designated concession may have been a protected natural habitat or national park. But time and again one could find that these old and environmentally valuable trees were cut down in exactly those spots with official approval. The export of precious hardwoods is another example.  This has been going for decades and the government is unable to stop it. The more egregious cases of clear violations of the law at the highest level involve people who killed somebody, whether in an accident or otherwise, just come to a settlement with the survivors who then don’t press charges. The same system is ingrained for rapes. The perpetrator simply pays some retribution to the victim and her family and then the prosecutor does not see the need for any official action although a myriad number of laws have been flagrantly ignored and broken. In fact, this constitutes another criminal offense. There is a duty to prosecute, whether or not the civil claim had been settled or not. A crime was committed and this requires a punishment.

But let’s take the recent new traffic law as an example par excellence how things work. The law was passed a year or so ago. One would think plenty of time to educate the population about the new regulations. The majority of traffic is motorcycles. The aim was to curb the many traffic fatalities that afflict the county. The law to wear a helmet had been in place already. Now both driver and pinion rider need to wear one. From now on there are only two adults and one child under 6 (?) allowed on a bike. The government convened a committee to hammer out a strategy on how to implement the new law. They came up with the brilliant idea to use about 1750 policemen nationwide, yes, nationwide, to man traffic posts. In Phnom Penh there are over 1 million registered motorcycles but only approx. 90,000 people with a driver license. Countrywide that number is probably unknown. So all unlicensed drivers would need to get a license. Many of the motorcycles, especially in Sihanoukville, had not been registered as the owner had not paid the import tax and duty for it, a prerequisite for getting it registered. In order to get a license they would all need to take a test and pass it. Those tests are a joke insofar as you practically could not fail. The people supervising the test are there to help you check the right answers if you pass them a little something.  But, of course, there is also a fee for the license itself involved.

Now come January 01 police began pulling over cars and motorcycles for infractions of the new law. This being Cambodia it goes without saying that the people who hadn’t had a license did not get one all these months the previous year, notwithstanding the fact that TV had reported on the subject many times. As for the registration, that probably was pretty much unaffordable for most people. So they simply did nothing about it. The rural people simply claimed not to know that a new law even existed – I am sure in some cases that’s even true. According to newspaper reports the police pulled over 80,000 vehicles the first 3 or 4 days and collected an almost similar amount of money. The enforcement provoked a veritable shitstorm on Facebook.  As the PM maintains a very active Facebook page he was swamped with comments.

The Prime Minister, lately somewhat suffering from statesman-like credibility because of the Sam Rainsy issue, took it to heart and swiftly rendered some of the sections suspended, e. g. the driver licenses – for motorcycles less than 125 cc none is needed, over 125 cc you need to get one but won’t have to take a test and getting the license is free. So why not have everybody get one? The registration requirement got a moratorium of I believe 6 months. So here you have the parliament who passed a law – this why it is called the legislature, one of the three pillars of democracy – and then you the Prime Minister, part of the executive branch who without even as much as a stroke of the pen but with an announcement on Facebook nixed part of a law. Wouldn’t that have been a job for the parliament? Of course, he did issue an executive order the next day and promised the assembly would later follow up with a change in the law.

So one can now easily understand why the Cambodian population, from the poor ignorant peasant to the well-heeled city dweller, simply doesn’t respect laws. They see how it is simply ignored and has been for decades at all levels of society so why should they comply with regulations that are against their personal, possibly only momentary, interests. During the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea there were strict laws that applied only to the general population. The party hierarchy had always been exempt unless somebody had rubbed somebody higher up the wrong way. After the 1993 elections, the ruling party simply contested the outcome, threatened secession, and managed to stay in power. Impunity is a widely practiced concept. When it served their purpose the law could be interpreted to fit their needs.

How can compliance with the law be taught to the general education – only in schools, right? This will, of course, only work if there is an educational system in place that would know how to do that. But with absenteeism and corruption as much part of a teacher’s life as everywhere else, this could never reach the broader future generation. This has been going on to this day and this is why even, perhaps especially, the younger ones just say, ‘Who cares?’


So it is no wonder that you can hardly see anybody after January 01 on Cambodia’s rural roads wear helmets, let alone the person on the back wearing one too. 3, 4 or even 5 people on one of those small rickety motorbikes are no rarity either. I haven’t been to Phnom Penh lately; reportedly it is slightly different there but in Sihanoukville one cannot see any noticeable change on the streets. Now they are forming a committee to study how to change the new traffic law to encompass the needs of all people. Who drew up the law in the first place and did the members of the assembly deliberate on it at all? Where was the opposition’s wisdom? Didn’t any of that go into the process at all?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Snakes

I am going to write about real snakes, not about the human kind. Snakes are widespread in SE Asia so it won’t come as a surprise when visitors or locals come across one. Most people will freeze up and scream (females) for fear or run away forgetting that most of the snakes, like everywhere, are harmless and will slither away from us. Of course, better safe than sorry, so it definitely is wise not to get too close to them. There are quite a few of the poisonous sort. Please refer to this website for further information and advice.


Hardly a week goes by where we don’t have a snake incident at our house. I have two dogs that routinely hunt smaller snakes. They grab it at the middle and shake it so it doesn’t have the opportunity to bite because their head is flopping around like crazy. Just the other day, though, they encountered a larger one which raised its head in typical snake fashion and my good dogs with their instincts shied away from a direct attack. My help killed it with a shovel. It was the Indo-Chinese spitting cobra. They did kill the smaller one though. The cobra made good fare for people in the nearby village.

On the prowl
Got it
Real small - but can be poisonous too


Spitting Cobra (poisonous) and harmless snake - but both dead

One time they had caught and thought they had killed a smaller snake already. So one dog got closer again to sniff at it and promptly got bitten in the nose. It was a poisonous snake and we had to rush him to a vet to get him a shot of anti-dotes. Poison takes longer in a dog to circulate through the system. According to the vet where it might take 1 hour in humans it takes 6 hours in dogs. His nose was a bit swollen for a while but he recovered fully and was soon back in the game.

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