More and more tourists are discovering the coastal city of Sihanoukville. The Post’s Cheng Sokhorng sat down with Taing Socheatkresna, head of Preah Sihanouk’s provincial tourism department, to discuss the past, present and future of the city’s tourism.
Many tourists complained of gouging after prices of hotels and restaurants spiked in the days leading up to last month’s Sea Festival, and asked the government to intervene. Why didn’t it?
The government has spent a lot of time training and educating the operators and staff of the tourism establishments. We want them to understand the importance of quality, service, hygiene, public order and the environment. And one of the most important aspects of this is for hotel operators, restaurateurs and vendors to maintain stable prices.
If they increase prices, it should only be by about 10 percent of their regular price. However, we must admit that some of them increased their prices by about 50 percent, which is not good for future business as it will diminish tourists’ confidence, and they will not come back to visit again. And our challenge is to control this issue.
That said, however, we found that most hotels kept prices stable or increased just by 10 or 20 percent.
The government recently ordered all coastal speedboat ferry services to sell tickets at $20. Why intervene here?
We had to intervene in ferry ticket pricing as even though we promote a free market we need to ensure it is sustainable in the long-term to preserve the quality of tourism.
Previously, there were a lot of different ferry companies and they tried to attract tourists by undercutting each others’ prices. Some ferries were charging just $15 including food, but now we’ve set a more sustainable price of $20.
What impact do you expect the recently launched renovation of Sihanoukville’s airport will have on the province’s economy?
Air travel plays an important role in promoting tourism. We know that in order to attract tourists, we need good infrastructure capable of handling direct flights and large aircraft from our main inbound markets.
When we have a standard airport, the improved connectivity will not only benefit the tourism sector, it will support the province’s commerce, investment in special economic zones and meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) sector.
Global hotel chain Marriott plans to open a hotel in Sihanoukville. What does it mean to have an international five-star brand come in, and do you expect more to follow?
We heard that Marriott is planning to open in Sihanoukville, which is really important for the city as a tourism destination. To attract high-class tourists we must have high-class products to serve them.
We currently have quality local brands such as the Sokha Hotel and Independence Hotel, but we need an internationally recognised five-star brand such as Marriott to attract high-class tourists, such as tycoons and Hollywood stars.
Is the Tourism Ministry’s goal to turn Sihanoukville into a mini-Macau, or is there a plan to contain the boom in new casino operations?
Turning Sihanoukville into a mini-Macau is one possibility as casinos make the city an attractive destination for Chinese tourists. But this would not mean developing a city entirely based on casinos, as we would need to have an international-standard airport, port, train station and highway to Phnom Penh. We also need hotels, restaurants, malls and entertainment activities. Only then will Sihanoukville become a diversified tourism city.
So what developments do you expect to diversify its tourism product?
Our development plan is based on multiple tourism products, as when we have products to satisfy tourists they will stay longer. This is not just focused on beach tourism, but also on providing tourists with entertainment options such as cultural performances, karaoke, casinos, etc.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.