Saturday, May 28, 2016

Closing this blog

Over the years I have written about many subjects concerning Cambodia and maintained this blog as best as I could. But, of course, I have a daytime job too. So lately the blog has suffered from my absence. Additionally, the situation in general and especially the political situation in Cambodia have not changed much for the better,  quite the opposite. Nevertheless, what's news is reported by the media, and many reports reflect my own personal opinion so I don't think it needs my personal input as well. A good source of information are the local English newspapers, all with an online edition: The Cambodia Daily, The Phnom Penh Post, and the Khmer Times.

You can check into the local Sihanoukville situation on Facebook. You will also find many interesting posts there, e. g. Expats and Locals in Sihanoukville, and many other groups about Cambodia.

I will leave the blog up so interested people can read up on a few things that might of interest to them.. However, I will no longer reply inquiries or comments.

Tank you for reading my blog.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Lost Sense of Reality

Today there was an article about Sam Rainsy in The Khmer Times. He warned that the government must finally introduce policies that would ensure the democratic process otherwise the donor nations would curtail or even cut all aid to Cambodia. That is a very dire and unnerving prediction.  The way he wrote this on his Facebook page read like he had concrete knowledge of such plans. Of course, his statement was formulated in such a way that only more educated people would understand the context. It
would certainly not raise a lot of interest in the majority of the population. Aid to Cambodia is an unknown, if not abstract, concept to them, I venture to say. He certainly has no concrete information from any government at all. The PM was in the U. S. for the U. S. – ASEAN meeting and even had a photo op with President Obama.  No announcement regarding aid was made there or in the aftermath. The call for civil liberties, democratic processes, etc. is common at the end of such meetings.

At the same time, and this was published even on the same day as his FB post was reported, the EU issued a statement that it would increase aid to Cambodia by roughly 50%. The EU, that is 27 countries, mind you. So what was the good gentleman thinking when he posted this on his facebook page? Was he just trying to remind people that he is still around and alive? Seeing the situation of Cambodia in terms of realpolitik there must this creeping feeling of futility and that he is being overtaken by events elsewhere and that Cambodia is on the farthest backburner of governments that would be able to exert but a token of influence. He is trying to overcome this, so it seems, by believing  his FB posts can sort of counter this.

Meanwhile the party’s vice president negotiates an entitlement program with the chief negotiator for the CPP, Sar Kheng. So one is trying to open up that much-cited culture of dialogue with a few bread crumbs strewn in for his own benefit while the other one is raising his finger in admonition warning of dire consequences for the people of Cambodia.  Are those two still on the same page, or is one pursuing his own agenda in the meantime? After all, he has to shoulder the brunt of the work. By all rights, he should be the president of the party, now shouldn’t he? In the past one had occasionally gotten the feeling  the Sam Rainsy is a little bit out of touch with what’s going on around him.  Thomas Fuller, the New York Times Correspondent for SE Asia for 10 years, is taking a new assignment and wrote a summary of what’s going on SE Asia. I was waiting to read something about Cambodia there too. Not one word – the main topic was Thailand and the military junta, Laos, Malaysia, and Myanmar were mentioned but not Cambodia . This seems to be symptomatic of Cambodia’s role on the world stage, it just doesn’t count for much. Perhaps, Sam Rainsy might realize this too eventually and instead of looking for support outside Cambodia he should mobilize forces within. And this can only be done if he is here on the ground. But then, prison is a pretty unsavory prospect.


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.

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