SIHANOUKVILLE - White sandy beaches, azure sky and not a soul in sight - sounds like
the perfect getaway, except that this was supposed to be the Christmas rush in Sihanoukville.
While a few foreigners and Cambodians braved the latest mercury scare, hoteliers
and restauranteurs reported a sharp downturn in business, with many outlets running
with depleted staff or shorter opening hours.
"We asked [the owner of] our guesthouse in Phnom Penh, whether it is safe to
go to Sihan-oukville", said German tourist Gaby Keller, as she sat in the shade
on Sokha Beach. "He said ëyes yes, no problem', but the guest house where we
stay [in Sihanoukville] is owned by his sister, and when we got here we found she
has fled to Phnom Penh with her children".
Teng Huy, Director of Tourism for Sihanoukville, said there had been almost a 100%
decrease in the number of tourists during December. "Last year we had 2,000
tourists, this year we expected 3,000" over the festive season, he said. And
how many tourists were officially accounted for in December? "ahh. . .ten",
he said, sheepishly.
Huy added that his office had sent a letter to the Ministry of Tourism to request
help with strategies to attract tourism back to the region, but as yet had received
no reply. "We have to tell the truth about the toxic waste", he said. "We
have to tell them [tourists] that it is already removed and now it is safe."
Despite this optimistic assessment of the situation, Huy also noted that the damage
to the economy of the area stretched further than just hotels and restaurants. The
fishing community was being disrupted because locals in Phnom Penh had stopped buying
sea fish, he said, as they believed that it was contaminated with mercury.
Many local market stallholders and beach vendors had packed up and disappeared in
the rush to leave the port town, and even taxi drivers to Phnom Penh were asking
much lower rates than usual, with a price of $10 to rent a car snapped up immediately.
Not everything was bad news, though. Madagascan tourist Edward Lamport said he had
no qualms about eating local seafood, nor drinking Angkor beer, which is produced
at the brewery just outside Sihanoukville. "Absolutely no worries", he
said. Others drinking and eating with him agreed, including Professor J. Santini,
a Director of Studies in health science. All said they would not be cutting their
vacation short because of the scare.
Tou Chiseng, manager of the popular Sokha Restaurant, would certainly welcome more
customers like Lamport and Santini. Christmas was normally a boom time for him, he
said, but this year he had seen hardly any customers. Did he think this was because
of the poisoning scare? "Perhaps", he said with a wistful smile.
By new year, one or two more tourists were starting to trickle back into the town,
but for Teng Huy, the key to reviving tourism here is the local population - once
they have all returned, the tourists will follow.
"This city is a key area for the development of Cambodia", he said. "We
are not going to let this be a disaster city. Please come and relax at the city's