Monday, November 22, 2010

One Tiny Step at a Time

It’s been there a while but I only now get to show it. Ocheuteal Beach in Sihanoukville, or Kompong Som as the locals still call it, has undergone a transformation for the better. It has been going on for a while and initially I thought this was only the individual bar and restaurant owners improving their own site but this is a concerted effort by the city of SHV. They built a ‘boardwalk’, which here is made of tiles. The restaurants are not just shacks, although there are still a few around; the beach lounges and umbrellas are usable, and the sand is clean, at least most of the time. It’s far from perfect but it’s a start.

Let’s face it the beach was nothing much to look at in the past. It was a beautiful stretch of oceanside showing nothing but neglect from the beach lounges to the umbrellas and the tables. One always read about those high-flying plans the federal and the state governments espoused of how to attract major tourist operators and airlines to send in thousands of tourists every year. All those plans foundered due to the lack of hotel capacity and, of course, the beach itself. As long as it stayed that way, they would only continue to get parsimonious backpackers.

First, the beach is rather small in order to accommodate the throngs of tourists the government and the local entrepreneurs would like to see there. Second, Western tourists, and those are the ones they should focus on, are rather spoiled when it comes to beaches; they are beach connoisseurs so to speak, probably having taken in the sun in places from Mombasa, Kenya, to Mauritius, or neighboring Thailand. Cambodia could not compete with any of those. On the one hand, this was one of the attractions of this country, but on the other hand, in order to lure those hard-currency carrying foreigners the beaches needed to undergo a major change. It is those Western package tourists who spend quite a bit of their money pouring it into the local economy.

I recently read an article sort of complaining that most of the money of the tourist sector goes back to foreign companies, starting with the airline, the foreign-owned hotels, and many times foreign-owned incoming operators. The frugal backpackers and individual tourists do spend money locally but they stay at cheap hotels, eat cheap food, and travel like locals on the inter-city buses. So altogether, they probably try to get by on $25 a day including hotel. For the tourism sector to be a major contributor the economy tourists would need to spend more time in the country and consequently more money that stays in the country. Currently the majority of tourists comes from Vietnam who stays 3 days on average. They are not exactly known for splurging. Koreans and Japanese come in groups and are herded through Angkor Wat, take a day to see Phnom Penh, and are off again. Their tours are usually 5 days. Mind you, they don’t like to eat at Khmer places – no, they want to eat their own food. So, it is Westerners.
There are a few hotel projects under way in SHV. I don’t know whether they will make a difference. We read about many promising multi-million dollar projects; so far, nothing has materialized. What the city and its beaches need are a few major investors who put up a string of 3 – 4 star resort hotels totaling about 2,500 beds. Since this won’t happen overnight, the logistics of that are manageable in terms of flight transfers from Phnom Penh or Seam Reap unless the plans for that airport at SHV become reality, which for now has again been put off. Once that number of ‘quality’ beds have been built there is no doubt that there will be at least one Western airline introducing non-stop flights from Europe to SHV. Cambodia, after all, makes for an ideal tourist destination – a typical package would comprise a total of 10 days at the beach, 3 days in Seam Reap, 2 days in Phnom Penh. Europeans normally have 4 – 6 weeks paid vacation time. Given the inhospitable climate there, they travel two, sometimes three, times a year, one of which is often a long-haul destination. Cambodia could be the next destination in their travel plans, but only if the infrastructure is there. And so far, unfortunately, it is not. But cleaning up their act, in the truest sense of the word, is a tiny first step.


Anonymous said...

the last time i was there last year it resembled a ghost town. The town needs giant steps all the time and all at once if it is going to compete with its neighbors. I would give it 10 more years to achieve this goal.

Anonymous said...

By the way, it would be interesting if you post some pictures of otres and its new garden.
For your future blogs, maybe a comment on the projects like pearl city etc
Keep it coming.