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Riding out tourism slump a memorable affair

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Frenchman Herve Nicole demonstrates one of 12 quad bikes he rents to tourists looking for a different way to see Siem Reap.

The owner of Siem Reap’s only quad bike tour business reckons that providing an unforgettable activity is the key to loosening wallets when tourists are starting to watch what they spend.

Siem Reap

THE global financial crisis has led to fewer visitors to Siem Reap and, therefore, big financial losses for many businesses that rely on the tourism trade.

Some, however, have never been busier, including French expatriate Herve Nicole’s quad bike tour business, the only one of its kind in town.
Nicole’s theory is that, although tourists are happy to cut costs when it comes to where they stay or what they eat, they are not ready to cut back on activities that make their trip memorable.

“If they are bored visiting temples or bored at their hotel, they will make an effort to spend money to have activities, for sure. If they don’t have a lot of money, instead of staying in a US$300-per-night hotel they may sleep in a $30- or $40-per-night hotel and will be able to afford the quad bike to have a good time.”

It was Nicole’s boredom with Siem Reap’s temples that helped spark the idea for his business. After running the Sala Bai Hotel School in the town for two-and-a-half years, he was ready to try something new.

“I wanted to do something that nobody had done, and I had the idea of the quad bike because I remembered the first time I came to Cambodia … I was bored after one day.

“So I said to myself ‘maybe it would be a great idea to take … people to see the villages and the children in the Siem Reap area, through … tracks that they can’t reach by normal transport.

“So I imported the quad bikes from the United States, and that was the beginning of the story.”

This is now
That was over two years ago, in May 2007.
After a modest campaign including online ads and flyers placed in a select few local businesses, the tours immediately proved popular. His client base includes tourists from all over the world, with most customers between 30 and 45 years old, Nicole said.

“I don’t want people who want to race and be dangerous in the villages. Everybody is so happy to see the bikes because we have a lot of respect for the locals. For people that use the quad bikes, it’s more a mode of transport, and it’s a fun way to go to see something interesting.”

Following rave reviews, word-of-mouth is now the chief way of attracting customers, he said: “Maybe 80 percent of my customers come to my tours now because they have a friend who came already.”

He now has a fleet of 12 quad bikes, and plans to buy another eight vehicles next year. Nicole believes the upfront costs of the business, and the “nightmare” of maintenance, may have kept away competitors.

“I imported these bikes. There is no warranty and, if something breaks, I have to fix the problem by myself. I have to buy new spare parts, which are very expensive. I have to pay the custom duties. I have to pay for the transport. I have to pay for everything. It’s really very expensive. You can buy the same model in China for much cheaper.”

So why did he opt to import from the US? It’s a trade secret, he said, declining to give details of his reasoning.

Though he still hasn’t recouped his investment, Nicole hopes to be profitable within the next three years – he will raise prices next year, he said, to help cover costs.

“When I have my money back I will buy some more bikes – I will invest.”

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