Cambodian tycoon Sok Kong enjoys a day at the beach in Sihanoukville on June 7.
Tourism to Cambodia will be essential for attracting new investment in the next decade but the Kingdom must weigh long-term environmental concerns against rapid expansion in the already booming sector, key industry figures said.
“Thinking long term, tourism [is] the major sector to invest in ... if we keep our environment clean then we will be able to attract more tourists in the future,” Sok Kong, founder and owner of Sokimex, told the Post in a June 9 interview.
Sokimex Cambodia Investment Co., Ltd was founded in 1994 and has a portfolio which ranges from garments to gas by way of five-star hotels.
The company has recently launched a $1-billion renovation of the decaying French colonial era Bokor Mountain resort, which will include two new luxury golf courses, and has several other major tourism-related projects in the pipeline, including a 500-room hotel on the Chroy Changva peninsula in Phnom Penh.
“The project will be started in July, next month is the inauguration,” Sok Kong said of the Phnom Penh hotel. “But the price of commodities has almost doubled – before the project was slated to cost $70 million but now we are looking at $100 million plus.”
The impact of the global spike in commodities prices is affecting all of Sokimex’s projects, however for Sok Kong “the real challenge is the environment.”
“It is the role, or duty, of the government to protect the environment for the future and it is also the role of the private sector,” he said.
“We as investors have to consider the environment – that is in everyone’s interest. If the government or companies do not protect [the environment] then we will all suffer.”
Sok Kong said tourism development projects in pristine natural environments such as Cambodia’s beaches or national parks should be carefully scrutinized by the government to avoid inadvertently destroying the same natural beauty that attracted tourists to the Kingdom in the first place.
“For the two hotel projects in Sihanoukville, environment is my first concern before anything else,” he said.
“All the sectors [tourism, energy, heavy industry] have to go forward together but the environment must come first,” he added.
Environmental watchdogs, however, are skeptical that Cambodia can balance conservation and development, pointing out that waste management at the country’s multitude of tourist destinations was already a problem.
“The proposed golf course at Bokor Mountain is located inside a protected area. We worry that the investment might cause problems for many locals in the area,” Sam Chanthy, an environment project officer for the NGO Forum of Cambodia said on June 11.
But Tourism Minister Thong Khon said his ministry was aware of environmental concerns stemming from the country’s rapid growth and was trying to encourage eco-friendly tourism projects through an award system for environmentally conscious developers.
“We only award concessions to investors who understand the importance of environmental protection,” Thon Khon said.
Sokimex’s Bokor Mountain project has passed an environmental assessment, he said, as has the recently inaugurated Russian-owned Koh Puos investment project.