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Tourism past the temples

Cambodia's tourism Kingdom of Wonder may be limited to the ancient temples of Siem Reap if some trends in economic development continue unabated.

Its tourism sector boasts Sihanoukville’s beaches, Koh Kong’s eco-tourism and French colonial architecture in Phnom Penh, among other sites.

But each of these three potential destinations faces challenges, including a potential coal-fired power plant, sand dredging and apparent damage to property, respectively.

Tourism is a big economic driver for Cambodia. But one has to wonder if a spate of recent events means serious development of the sector has taken a back seat to economic growth.

Most recently, we’ve seen alleged construction by Vattanac Properties damaging French colonial-era buildings on Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh.

That history, along with similar architecture in Siem Reap and Battambang, is no doubt a part of Cambodia’s attraction as a tourist destination.

Similar damage was being done to the ecology of Koh Kong – as well as to local resorts’ business and the livelihood of local residents – over the past few months, as dredging machines owned by tycoon and Cambodian People’s Party senator Ly Yong Phat pulled sand from the province’s rivers.

To his credit, Prime Minister Hun Sen has largely halted sand dredging in the Kingdom. And the Ministry of Water Resources has called on Ly Yong Phat to study the environmental impacts of his operations.
According to reports, however, those operations continue in some form even now.

The list goes on. Sihanouk-ville’s beaches have won distinction among the world’s best, yet there are plans to build a coal-fired power plant in the area, to the obvious detriment of the surrounding environment.

Mondulkiri, another eco-tourism destination, has had  its forests cleared for rubber plantations and other agriculture production.

The Cambodian government has the right to shift the focus from tourism to other potential revenue streams.

In fact, the much-needed diversification of the economy has been a key issue for the Kingdom for some time, and certainly the clearing of land to make way for agriculture at least continues the country’s economic development.

Cambodia cannot have it both ways. If tourism is to be extended beyond a reliance on Siem Reap’s temples, then the natural habitat and heritage must be preserved, which means doing away entirely with sand dredging and planned coal-fired power plants.

Authorities shouldn’t overlook the important role tourism plays in attracting further investment to the Kingdom.

Visits to Angkor Wat or Phnom Penh are often the first points of contact with Cambodia for business people who could bring significant sums of money to the country.

The growing importance of places such as Sihanoukville and Koh Kong on the tourism trail will only serve to increase  that revenue.

Mohan Gunti, who advises the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents and is a member  of the government’s tourism working group, emphasised that point yesterday.

“Tourism brings people, and people bring the investment. The investment carries on through trade, employment opportunities for Cambodians, growth in the construction and banking industries and so on,” Gunti said.

These are crucial points, given that Cambodia is still largely unknown to many investors. So it may not make sense to sacrifice the Kingdom’s wonders to industry and development just yet.

Contact Tom at tom.brennan@phnompenhpost.com

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