A foreign man walks past locals on Ochheuteal beach, part of 450km of coastline the government aims to develop under its so-called K-4 scheme.
The groundbreaking earlier this month of a bridge linking Cambodia's mainland with Koh Puos, the future site of a Russian-backed island resort, has brought the government another step closer to realizing its plan to develop the southern coastline into a world-class destination for tourism and business.
The so-called K-4 plan, named after the most prominent coastal towns - Koh Kong, Kampong Som (Sihanoukville), Kampot and Kep - is one of the government's most ambitious schemes in its bid to evolve 450 kilometers of once empty beach, mangrove and coastal scrubland into teeming resorts, protected bio-spheres for eco-tourism and industrial zones.
The 26 islands off the coast, including Koh Puos, the site of the $470-million Russian project, have also been targeted, said Tourism Minister Thong Khon, adding that Cambodia must turn some of its attention away from its largest tourist draw, the Angkor temples, and take advantage of a variety of other, under-utilized attractions.
"K-4 is the second-most attractive tourist destination after Angkor Wat in Siem Reap," he told the Post.
"It has enormously high potential in its beaches, islands, sea, ports, mountains, waterfalls and mangrove forests," he added. "We have more potential than other countries."
With the number of foreign visitors coming to Cambodia expected to eclipse last year's more than two million arrivals, officials say they are keen to carve out a niche market for eco-conscious tourists.
Yuth Phouthang, the governor of Koh Kong province which borders Thailand, said, "We have 200km of coastline and beaches with beautiful sand ... and Koh Kong is only one of three wetland areas in Cambodia."
Officials are eying the area for its economic potential as well.
The international checkpoint between Koh Kong - which receives between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors a year - and the Thai border city of Trat needs to be upgraded, Phouthang said, adding that he hopes to attract other investment as well with the creation of a special economic zone.
In Sihanoukville - where Khon hopes will become home to Cambodia's second-largest airport - plans are underway to expand the country's only deepwater port with the hopes of attracting more sea-borne commerce.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said during the Koh Puos bridge groundbreaking that several power plants and more special economic zones were planned for Sihanoukville.
But officials in Sihanoukville acknowledged the need to balance industrial development with the area's natural assets.
"Tourism is the first priority for generating revenue for [Sihanoukville], then agriculture and then industry," Sihanoukville Governor Say Hak said.
Tourism officials in Kep, Cambodia's one-time Riviera that had been reduced to a collection of crab shacks and abandoned '60s-era villas, also stressed the need to retain some of the quiet charm that has made the town a favorite for those hoping to escape the increasingly crowded beaches in Sihanoukville.
While some small, luxury resorts are turning Kep into a high-end weekend getaway, Tourism Department director Chhay Khoeun told the Post on June 10, "We will not develop Kep into a big hotel or resort town ... we want to keep Kep as a natural place for tourists."
Environmentalists said they welcomed eco-friendly projects, but questioned how the K-4 development would juggle environmental protection with its economic ambitions.
"We're concerned about how all of these factories will manage their waste," said Sam Chanthy, environmental project officer with NGO Forum.
"The ideas of eco-tourism and bad waste management clash."