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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Airport is key to southern development - Minister

Airport is key to southern development - Minister

The rehabilitation of Sihanoukville airport should spur major development in the

south of the country, the government says. Thong Khon, secretary of state at the

Ministry of Tourism (MoT), says construction at Kang Keng Airport by Malaysian

firm Ariston should be finished before the end of the year.

"They just

need to renovate the runway, extend it by 100 meters and add a small terminal,"

he says. Once that is done the airport will be able to handle 737 aircraft from

Bangkok, Singapore and other regional cities.

MoT Minister Veng Sereyvuth

says significant development is simply not viable without the work. The

strategic plan for tourism focuses on the triangle of Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and

the area around Sihanoukville.

"We can't land tourists from Phnom Penh,

Siem Reap or other parts of the country, and tourists can't fly to other parts

of the country from Sihanoukville," he told the Post ahead of the ASEAN Regional

Tourism Forum.

He says that Sihanoukville is the key to the government's

plan of attracting more visitors to the southern attractions of Kep, Bokor

National Park and Koh Kong.

"From Sihanoukville you can cover a whole

range of activities in the National Park of Bokor, in Kampot and Kep, but it

will not be viable without [an airport] and it will not take place because no

major investor will come there."

The airport development is part of a

long-delayed $1.3 billion agreement signed in Kuala Lumpur in January 1995. The

original deal included development of a power plant, infrastructure facilities

at the port and an island hotel and casino resort at Koh Pos, which lies 800

meters off Victory Beach. It was due for completion in December 1997.

But

the coalition government squabbled over the plan in 1997 with then co-Prime

Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh declaring void two contracts Ariston had

signed with Sok An, Minister of the Council of Ministers and also

co-vice-chairman of the Sihanouk-ville Development Authority.

Michael

Nen, vice-president of public relations at Ariston, says the company still plans

to complete the huge development, although full details are not currently

available. He adds that a hotel complex adjacent to the golf course, which the

firm is currently constructing, will also be "coming up very

soon".

Tourism authorities are looking to the pristine islands in the

Gulf of Thailand as well as the beaches of Sihanoukville and Kep to develop

tourism beyond the Angkor Wat temple complex.

"It is very clear the

seaside is where tourists can relax, so Sihanoukville has to be the hub of

tourism development in the whole region," says Sereyvuth.

Sihanoukville

began life with the dissolution of French Indochina in 1954. Cambodia's

traditional trade route had been through the Mekong Delta which, with

independence, came under the control of Vietnam.

The port then played a

vital role in the Vietnam War as a depot for supplies for the NVA. In the early

1990s, the town boomed again, with thousands of UNTAC personnel, who were in the

country to oversee its transition to democracy, converging on the

area.

Sereyvuth wants to combine the resources of the airport with the

fact that Sihanoukville has the country's only deep-water port.

"You are

talking about very big business in the region through cruise ships," he says.

"They amount to about 7 percent of tourist arrivals in the region and you can

load them up with two, three or four thousand people.

"Aside from

Cambodia, all of ASEAN's ports have been doing very well on this - so why can't

we?" he asks, adding that an air link to Siem Reap is essential to attract large

cruise liners.

Other developments in the area are already well underway.

There are three casinos on the mainland, and the Independence Hotel, a towering

modernist building boasting its own theater and ocean views, is being

refurbished after falling into disrepair in the 1970s.

Weather Station

Hill has boomed as a popular spot for backpacker hostels since the Koh Kong

border crossing opened in 1998.

The islands are also attracting

investment, following the success of such tourism in Thailand, which attracts

around 10 million people each year. The islands off Sihanoukville remain some of

the least spoiled in the region.

A Las Vegas-based developer is studying

the feasibility of a $100 million resort for Koh Rung Sonleum and Koh Rung, 25

kilometers off the coast. Another is being considered by French developers for

Kaong Karng.

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