A couple of years ago I posted an article entitled “Will Sihanoukville Ever Become A Real Tourist Destination?” Now two years or so later I think it’s time to take another look, not the least because I have joined the hotel community myself. My hotel has been open a year now – so one gains plenty of hands-on experience this way. In one of my previous careers I looked at hotels from the tour operator’s view, now I look at it or them from behind the reception counter or my office.
First, Sihanoukville has recorded a tremendous increase of tourist arrivals. Online booking agencies (booking.com, agoda.com) report a 300% increase of bookings over last year. This does not take into account the arrivals from Vietnam who mostly come in tour buses, or from China who are mostly booked through travel agencies directly into the hotel. Vietnamese ranked number one, Chinese number two, Russians number three. Koreans are the third largest group for Cambodia but rank among the also ran for Sihanoukville. Altogether there were about 764,000 arrivals in the first 6 months of 2014, or a 27% increase over last year. These numbers surely are impressive.
Recently there was one charter flight from Korea to test the waters so to speak. That tour operator announced regular weekly flights next high season, but we will have to wait and see. Many times announcements are just that; Cambodia has seen and heard many of those without them ever materializing.
The fact remains, though, that Sihanoukville still lacks the infrastructure for becoming a major world-class tourist destination. A major tourist destination is defined by the number of hotel beds that at least thrice weekly flights for any given airline would be able to fill. Since there would be several airlines from different countries you are looking at about 1800 seats or a requirement of about roughly 5,400 beds for those airlines alone; if you factor in an 80% occupancy of those flights the number of beds would still be around 4,500 beds.
Specifically, there are not enough hotel rooms in the 3 to 5 star category. The hotels that cater to a specific Asian clientele are not necessarily ones that are in line with the requirements of Western, Korean, or Japanese tour operators. As with everything else, China is a new economic factor and they travel in large numbers. Of course, a tourist is a tourist, no matter where they come from, but taking Thailand as an example the majority of their tourist business is from developed countries. So in order to attract larger numbers from those the mix of hotels needs to change. There are about 175 hotels in Sihanoukville, most of them hidden away in places where no tourist would book a room, except for the occasional backpacker. These hotels count and exist (possibly subsist) on weekend traffic from Phnom Penh. For the most part they are cheap (in the $10 to$20 range). The owners own the land and the building outright so they can afford low rates. Their income expectations are rather modest too. Since they employ almost exclusively family members they can easily live on that – for the time being. Eventually, inflation will force them to raise their rates as well.
If you look at the major areas you will get a clear distinction of the type of tourist that stays there. Victory beach is nice but is just a bit too close to the port. A port always brings murky, if not dirty, waters so the beach there is not a prime location. There are a couple of hotels that are in the 3 star category and large enough to accommodate a certain number of guests.
There is an unfettered building boom in both regular housing as well as in condominiums and hotels. Some of the larger new hotels have an outright tasteless design, but those things are in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, they still won’t fill the void.
Occheuteal Beach with its purely Cambodian ambience is home to quite a few hotels and so is Serendipity Beach. A few of those would meet international standards, but not nearly enough for those airplane loads of tourists. Most of the hotels are mom-and –pop operations and clearly aimed at the individual traveler, as does my hotel with 16 rooms.
Sokha Beach has one large 5-star international hotel, and Independence Beach also has one large 5-star property. Currently, they are the only ones able to accommodate larger numbers.
Then you have Otres Beach, which is divided into two parts – the near end and the far end. The near end is backpackers haven and as such would not count in the greater plan. The far end currently has two nice somewhat upscale hotels but they also only have 10 or 20 rooms respectively. A handful of wooden bungalows with a sort of basic flavor cater to individual tourists who like this.
Although Sihanoukville Bay is one of the world’s most beautiful bays the beaches are in need of some major overhaul for this new market. They are nice and even beautiful, well-accepted by individual travelers but a tour operator would think twice. This is why no major hotel chain has ventured into this market.
The majority of guests and hotel owners want it to stay this way - a destination for people who do not like to use organized travel. The other main sectors are restaurants and entertainment. Except for a handful of restaurants that serve great food, especially Asian seafood, most are Cambodian eateries along the beach and consequently frequented by natives. Sometimes a look at the kitchens of those places make you doubt the quality of the food. Western places there aren’t that different either. Everybody can get their meal but to round off the attractiveness of a destination one needs a few more somewhat upscale restaurants.
For entertainment there is hardly anything for the mainstream Western tourist. Asians will like the many Karaoke places, and the casinos, if it were. But recent news reports state that this business sector is losing money. I have never understood why companies thought that gamblers from neighboring countries would come in such numbers to make this a profitable business. Anyway, I don’t see Western tourists coming for casinos. There are definitely more exciting casinos elsewhere in the world, just think ‘Las Vegas’. There are a few restaurants/bars with DJ’s on Serendipity Beach (the first stretch on the Western end of Occheuteal Beach). The music is loud, the crowd is mixed, with a lot of Cambodian girls looking for men they can lure into a tryst. This is more for the young people or the single male. Victory hill is home to many bars with taxi girls. This is the seamy side of Sihanoukville, and this together with a place close to port called chicken farm is where the whole city got its seedy reputation. This is slowly being pushed into the background as the clientele overall has changed drastically over the past few years. One sign of that is that even during the rainy season mainstream tourists come here. Before it was mostly single men who liked the cheap beer and cheap girls.
Recently, the American Embassy put out a travel advisory warning tourists not to visit Occheuteal Beach after dark, mainly Serendipity Beach, as there were reports of increased gang activities and violence against foreigners. That advisory is patently false. Yes, there was this one attack on an American who got stabbed in very unclear circumstances. But as far as violence goes, incidents are far and few between. Deaths of foreigners that occur here are mostly of elderly men having serious health problems already and succumbing to them. Tropical climates are not really for the frail elderly Western tourist. Of course, you get the occasional OD’ed tourist who shot up and did not know what he/she bought on the street from some shady character. This is a poor country and consequently you have quite a bit of petty crime, bag snatching from a motorcycle, or at night when walking on deserted streets. Burglaries is also one of the more prevalent crimes perpetrated here but these are mainly in residences, as Cambodian people still tend to keep their valuables and cash in the house. Hotels are spared as virtually all of them have security, alarm systems, CCTV, etc. I have not read or heard about one burglary in a hotel or guesthouse. As in any other developing country, if tourists observe a few simple precautions they won’t fall victim to a crime.
Altogether, Sihanoukville has become a destination in its own right as opposed to being an extension on an Indochina trip – but for the individual traveler mostly, flashpackers and other mainstream tourists who have a normal budget but who still like the comparatively low prices. The atmosphere is very much laid-back and quiet, unlike most other, say Thai destinations. It is not yet a world-class destination by any stretch of the imagination, although officials like to fantasize it already is. They have a long way to go to reach that. Most of all, officials will have to act rather than just hold meetings and talk. They can do a lot to improve things by just cleaning up the trash in the city, regulate the beach vendors, enforce sanitation regulations, etc. Now that most of the power problems have become a thing of the past with the additional power plants in full operation and the water supply constant, Sihanoukville has shed some of its bad reputation and is definitely worth a visit. It has come a long way. Sun-hungry Europeans especially can spend their vacation here just like anywhere else. They can enjoy a variety of waterfront activities, eat the local food, particularly seafood, and relax in the sun with a drink in hand. In point of fact, for instance the average stay at my hotel is 10 days. So there is a tendency among some tourists to spend their entire vacation in Cambodia. After visiting Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat, a national park up north for the wildlife, or some other natural preserve, Sihanoukville is an ideal conclusion for a trip to Cambodia. This appears to be hanpening more and more and is a good sign for the tourist industry and in the end for the people of Sihanoukville and Cambodia in general..