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Tourists walk along a pier after disembarking cruise ship in 2015. Bloomberg
Tourists walk along a pier after disembarking cruise ship in 2015. Bloomberg

Sihanoukville tries not to miss the boat

The Seabourn Sojourn, a luxury liner operated by US-based Seabourn Cruise Line Ltd, arrives at Sihanoukville port this morning, delivering hundreds of well-heeled tourists to what industry experts say is a backwater market that is increasingly on cruise ship itineraries, yet still falls short of expectation.

The 200-metre long passenger vessel, which carries up to 450 tourists and a crew of 330, is on a 14-night journey from Hong Kong to Singapore. Five years ago, it might have skipped Cambodia altogether; but with Sihanoukville’s improving tourism infrastructure, it is one of 10 cruise ships to call at the port this month.

Sihanoukville port received 36 calls from cruise ships last year, 11 more than in 2014 and with a 75 per cent increase in passenger numbers, according to Chey Sokunthea, a marketing executive for Sihanoukville Autonomous Port (SAP).

She said Cambodia’s tourism sector has failed to grasp the potential of the $40 billion global cruise-ship industry, and lacks many of the basic services and facilities that cruise-ship passengers expect. These include a diversified tourism product, onshore attractions and consistent, high-quality services.

Sihanoukville’s white sand beaches can tempt tourists; but the coastal city needs to prove it is not simply a one-trick pony, and the glossy tourism brochures need substance.

“To fulfil the needs of cruise ship calls we need good propaganda and, of course, good background to support that propaganda,” Sokunthea said.

While Sihanoukville port has grown immensely since it first began operation in 1960, its development has been geared to handling the deep-water port’s growing container traffic.

There is no passenger terminal or tourist amenities at the port such as ATMs or public restrooms. Transport is extremely limited.

Many of the cruise ships that call at the port must anchor offshore and transport passengers to the port in tenders, Sokhunthea said.

Sinan Thourn, chairman of the Cambodia Tourism Federation, said priority should be given to developing the Sihanoukville port’s cruise ship facilities, which would encourage more cruise lines to call at the port.

“Cambodia needs to develop a professional tourist port and must have full facilities for cruise landing and anchoring, as well as facilities for tourists,” he said. “At the same time, we need more four- and five-star hotels and transportation [in Sihanoukville] too.”

But onshore limitations might not be the only thing holding vessels back from calling at Sihanoukville. In September 2014, the US Coast Guard added the port to its International Port Security Programme (IPSP) blacklist, which charts countries it claims do not maintain effective anti-terrorism measures.

Inclusion in the list means any vessel visiting Sihanoukville port during its last five ports of call will be subject to a mandatory and extensive security inspection upon arrival at a US port. The inconvenience of delay, or possibility of denied entry, can discourage cruise liners from including a blacklisted port on their itinerary.

While Sokunthea said the IPSP listing could be affecting cruise traffic, she insisted the port’s security was sound.

“PAS has a good cooperation with cruise ship security for each call to keep [ships] safe and maintain security at a maximum level . . . and this has so far been acceptable to cruise ships,” she said.

She added that IPSP compliance is the responsibility of the Ministry of Tourism and that PAS has followed the programme’s guidelines as closely as possible, and is in the process of applying for a review.

Despite the growth of ocean cruise traffic, Nick Spencer, office manager of Ana Travel and Tours in Sihanoukville, argues that the shoreside industry is heavily monopolised and there is very little in it for local businesses.

“It is difficult to get business from them,” he said of arriving cruise ships.

According to Spencer, Angkor TK Travel and Tours is the only travel agency permitted to enter SAP and meet arriving cruise boats. As passengers disembark, they are directed to a shuttle bus operated by Angkor TK.

He said other travel companies can only enter the port if they pay Angkor TK $25 for each passenger they pick up.

Angkor TK did not respond to inquiries.

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