A casino complex on top of Kampot province’s Bokor Mountain will open in less than two weeks – but environmental groups are strangely quiet about the effects the development, the size of a small city, could have on Cambodia’s natural heritage.
The complex, in the Preah Monivong National Park, included a casino and hotel and would have a “soft opening” late this month before an official opening mid-year when construction was completed, Thansur Bokor Highland Resort chief executive Dr Ngin Banal said.
“Our primary target market is the greater Mekong region, including Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. Our secondary market is southern China and Korea,” he told the Post this week.
In January, 2008, the government granted the Sokha Hotel Group, owned by Sokimex Investment Group, a 99-year lease for the US$1 billion development.
Based on the original plans, the project will also include a 700-room, 18-storey five-star hotel, as well as conference rooms, bars, wedding facilities and two Arnold Palmer-designed golf courses.
A showroom halfway up the mountain displays a detailed scale model of how the national park will look in about 15 years, when hundreds of houses and villas will stretch back from the mountain's southern edge.
Despite its scope, forest and animal protection groups have been quiet about the development’s potential impact.
The World Wildlife Fund said yesterday it had not worked in the area, so it was “technically very hard for us to comment”.
Environmental group Save Cambodia’s Wildlife said its executive director was not available for comment yesterday.
Wildlife Alliance, which raised concerns when the Ministry of Environment handed over the park ranger training station to Sokha in 2009, did not respond to the Post’s calls and emailed questions.
Anne Lemaistre, from the Cambodian office of UNESCO, said time had prevented her examining the environmental impact of the project, but she was a “little worried” about the reported transformation.
Tep Bunnarith, executive director of the Culture and Environment Preservation Association, said he wanted information about the environmental effects of the development to be made public.
“People want to know this because they can help to improve the situation,” he said.
Rather than overrunning the national park, the development was a “rehabilitation project”, Dr Ngin Banal said.
“We are restoring existing infrastructure, such as the original dam and reservoir.
Scenic walks and adventure trails are designated with the help of national park rangers by clearing original trails which have become overgrown,” he said.
“This area had fallen into disrepair and our efforts are restoring tourism by providing easy access to the natural treasures of Preah Monivong National Park by investing in repaving the roads and infrastructure restoration to rebuild the ‘sky city’ and the old historic sites,” he said.
Dr Ngin Banal said the company paid an annual fee to the government for operating in a national park, but “we cannot discuss the terms”.
He would not confirm how many houses would be built, but said none had been pre-sold, despite interest from potential buyers.
“The group envisions that in the next 15 years, the original sky city, which consisted of eco-tourism, commercial and residential areas, will be fully restored in full compliance of the approved master plan by the Royal Government of Cambodia,” he said.
The company could not say how many people had lived in the “sky city”, which included a hotel and a Catholic Church, during French colonial times.
Dr Ngin Banal said the company was not facing opposition from environmental groups.
“We are reaching out to conservation groups one by one to involve them with our preservation efforts,” he said, adding the company had already met with Fauna & Flora International.
Dr Tony Whitten, Fauna & Flora International’s regional director for Asia-Pacific, said his organisation did not have a formal partnership with the company.
“Given the ecological importance of the site, our team has been in verbal discussions with them [about] some of the options for reducing and mitigating the environmental impact of this project,” Whitten said.
“FFI is concerned about the threats posed by economic land concessions, and we are compiling, interpreting and sharing information confidentially with our government partners.”
When the Post visited the national park this week, construction workers far outnumbered tourists as they dug trenches and built retaining walls next to the road.
Hundreds of workers toiled on the mountaintop hotel and casino complex.
Sor Sarou, a 52-year-old tour guide who began driving up the mountain in the 1980s, said it had been common in the past to see elephants, monkeys and snakes.
“I would often see animals moving out in front of us. But not now.”
Kampot provincial governor Khoy Khun Hour said the development would not have negative effects on the forest, wild animals or anyone living in the area.
Instead, it would attract local and foreign tourists, improving life for locals.
“Since the development [and the road], many people have visited Bokor national park,” he said. “On international New Year’s Day this year, as many as 50,000 people visited.”
Buddhist monk Nget Chen, 21, a monk at the Sampov Pram pagoda, which is next to the casino development, is concerned about gambling and noise from live entertainment shows.
“In general, Buddhist monks do not need entertainment; they need a quiet place, not a noisy one,” he said.
Nget Chen is also concerned about the environment.
“When the forest is cut, it loses its attraction. And there are fewer animals and trees,” he said.
However, Nget Chen admitted more tourists had been visiting and offering food to the monks at the pagoda since the road had been tarred last year.
In Kampot town, a Cambodian restaurant owner, who did want her name printed, was full of praise for the project.
“Most people think it is a good idea. It brings people to a beautiful place,” she said.
“I am not concerned about animals because I think the fierce animals are long gone.”
A foreign owner of a restaurant, who also did not want his name used, said the development shocked many tourists.
“Certainly, many foreigners take a day trip up the mountain and come back in horror after seeing the development,” he said.
“Their biggest question is, ‘How can this happen in a national park?’
“A lot of expat responses are similar, and come from an environmental point of view.
“I’ve also asked locals what they thought and they’ve said, ‘Yes, good’, but I’m sure there’s more to it than that.”
Youn Heng, director of the Evaluation and Incentive Department at the Council for the Development of Cambodia, said it was his officials’ role to monitor companies’ activities to ensure they were hewing to development plans.
“Our officials have examined the development at Bokor, but there is nothing wrong,” Youn Heng said.
Environment and land management ministry officials declined to comment.