Chairs lie unused at Otres Beach, where business owners this month won a fight against eviction.
Sihanoukville – As developers continue to close Sihanoukville’s beaches, forcing out hundreds of private businesses, a leading conservationist is now warning that Cambodia will lose more than it gains if development plans are not capped.
Conservation International ecotourism officer Touch Nimith said development in Sihanoukville is threatening to “close off blue zones,” or natural coastal habitats, as government plans look set to cater for high-end tourism without consideration for the environment.
“There needs to be a long-term strategy for development based on careful analysis of the area,” Nimith said, after meeting with Ministry of Tourism officials in Sihanoukville on February 17.
“Key areas need to be selected and preserved as blue and green zones, but currently there is no plan and no control over development,” he said.
The Ministry of Tourism is pushing for more development in Sihanoukville to boost tourist numbers, but Nimith said the rush to expand could lead to overdevelopment, thereby threatening Cambodia’s tourism industry rather than enhancing it.
“Thailand and Vietnam already have well-established beach resorts and nice hotels. Cambodia’s charm lies in its underdeveloped areas and natural beauty,” Nimith said.
Sihanoukville tourism director Som Chenda, however, said Sihanoukville is foremost a beach and island tourist destination, and as such all its beaches and islands need to be developed to attract more tourists.
Chenda insisted that development protects the environment.He said beach vendors damage and pollute beaches, putting their own interests ahead of the environment. Development, on the other hand, brings not only financial benefits but environmental protection as well, Chenda said.
Meanwhile, further down the coast, Otres Beach businesses are to be inspected in April after their initial eviction notice was overturned.
Forty-six representatives of 72 business owners presented a letter of protest at the home of Prime Minister Hun Sen in Takhmau, Kandal province, on February 9.
As a result, the order to remove all buildings from Otres beach was revoked by Sihanoukville Deputy Governor Sboang Sarath. Instead, business owners were told to bring their businesses in line with beach regulations.
Still, Chenda said some businesses on Otres Beach have built permanent residences and guesthouses that do not comply with municipality regulations. These will have to be removed and beach cabanas standardized, he said.
While staff and owners remain uncertain about the future of their businesses, Koy Chhay, owner of the Bamboo Shack restaurant and one of the organizers of the protest letter, said he was confident business would continue at Otres for at least a few more years.
“With all of us working together we make it very difficult to move us,” he said.
But the recent surge in beach privatizations in Sihanoukville was cause for concern, he added, saying that if the investment did not slow soon there would be no beach left for the next generation of Cambodian children to visit.
There is local support for the development, however. One Otres restaurant manager said although he would have lost his job had the demolition order not been rescinded, he was still disappointed by the government’s change of plans.
“The beach is so messy like this,” said the Sihanoukville local, who asked not to be named.
“Soon it will be like O’Chheuteal – a dirty beach, messy buildings, broken umbrellas, rubbish, sellers and seaweed everywhere. If they made it a resort they would clean everything up and keep the sellers away. It would be a much nicer place.”