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Cancellation of Water Festival leaves vendors high, dry

For the third year running, the cancellation of the Water Festival in Phnom Penh has had a devastating effect on many local businesses that have traditionally relied on the surge of income from the annual event, small-business owners and industry bodies said yesterday.

The biggest losers from the absence of this year’s festival have been the many food vendors who ply their trades and cater to the thousands of visitors who normally pack the city’s streets.

“This year is simple; sales are even less than on [normal] weekends,” said Lin from behind her pork-and-rice cart on Preah Sisowath Quay, near the Himawari hotel.

The government announced last month that this year’s festival was cancelled in the wake of nationwide flooding that has taken more than 100 lives.

The festival is a traditional annual event that attracted crowds of more than one million to Phnom Penh for celebrations. It was held during a national three-day holiday. Business would rise sharply, with street vendors like Lin seeing their profits peak.

During previous festivals, Lin would be busy up until 1am, but yesterday – the last day of the intended three-day celebration – business was slower than most normal days and she was finished by 1pm. Lin served only three customers.

Ray Vuthy, another food vendor located nearby, said profits were down compared with a normal weekend let alone the influx of business missing from the festival.

Serey Chakriya, a drinks vendor on Diamond Island, was struggling to offload her regular stock.

“I just have a small amount of goods to sell, but still cannot sell it all,” she said.

Food and drink vendors are not the only ones hurting.

Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDIEA) representing both street vendors and tuk-tuk drivers, said normally the festival is a windfall for some of Cambodia’s smallest businesses, but the cancellation has left many members with less than their daily income.

“They [tuk-tuk drivers] can at least earn 300,000 riel [$75] during the three days of the Water Festival, but this year it is nothing,” Pao said.

“It is even worse than on normal days because many city residents left to visit resorts in the provinces.”

The Water Festival has not been held since 2010, when more than 300 died in a stampede on a bridge at Diamond Island. More than 700 were reportedly injured at the time.

In 2011 flooding was also the reason for cancellation.

Last year the event was not held out of respect for the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who passed away the month before the event was to be held.

In years gone, Cambodian tourists would flock from the provinces to the capital to watch boat races on the Tonle Sap in front on the Royal Palace.

Ho Vandy, co-chairman of the tourism private sector working group, said that most domestic tourists now during the holiday period visit Siem Reap and the costal areas like Sihanoukville, Kampot and Kep.

On the question of impact on international tourism, Vandy said that although “a few of them were upset” to miss out on the boat races, they would be forgiving when they understood why it had been cancelled.

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