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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Shooting for the moon

Shooting for the moon

Cambodia's recently appointed Minister of Tourism does not lack

for Wat Phnom. In his first 30 days in office, he met each of the Ministry's 540

employees personally. This month, he began visiting every province. He will evaluate

each one's tourism potential and document any obstacles which might undermine their

march toward success. Among his first stops were the northwestern border-crossing

towns, where he "dealt with" official overcharging of tourist visa fees.

Just before leaving, Lay Prohas sat down with Richard Woodd to explain the

challenges the industry faces and why he thinks tourism is the best weapon for fighting

poverty.

Lay Prohas is a lanky, awkward guy with an engaging personality and a refreshingly

accessible attitude toward those who meet him. He comes across as an earnest, ambitious

minister who enjoys his work immensely and has his sights set on bigger things (and

probably a bigger salary, as his official income is only $300 per month, and he now

has to pay some of that to the Funcinpec Party). He has a good grasp of his portfolio

and is plugged into many local and international networks.

Lay Prohas: "The further we can spread the tourists into our provinces, the greater the benefits will be for poverty reduction."

When he worked at the Ministry of Planning as Secretary of State, he used to dream

of owning a successful travel agency. Now, he is effectively Cambodia's biggest travel

agent, with a mission of bringing the largest possible numbers of visitors into the

country, encouraging them to stay longer than planned and spending more money than

they intended.

"Tourism is the only sector of the economy which can have a positive, almost

immediate impact on poverty reduction through growth, unlike agriculture which needs

a longer timeframe. Therefore I want the Tourism Ministry to have a stronger leadership

role in planning and coordinating national infrastructure improvements to assist

growth in key tourism areas," he says.

Prohas says he is actively lobbying in government and donor circles to be more influential

in setting national priorities to meet tourism industry needs.

"It's up to me to convince other line ministries to support me. The Prime Minister

is with me on this and I am making progress. They are listening.

"One million tourists will visit Cambodia this year and if they spend an average

of $1,000 each, that's $1 billion injected into the economy. The further we can spread

the tourists into our provinces, the greater the benefits will be for poverty reduction."

Prohas and a team including a video film crew have begun visiting every province

(trying to average two per week) to identify and record the tourist attractions,

make suggestions, note the obstacles to be dealt with, infrastructure needs, be supportive

and encouraging and listen to what provincial leaders have to say. He will personally

meet every governor.

"Each province needs its own development plan to identify and sell its own uniqueness

and they have to be proactive and creative in sourcing funding. They can't rely on

getting government funds," Prohas said. "I'm willing to support each province,

particularly those who have initiative. Commercial TV spots don't cost much in this

country."

French tourists devour the pleasures of Occheuteal Beach, Sihanoukville. The Serendipity end is in the distance, to left.

Prohas said CNN has offered some commercial TV time for Cambodia tourism in 2005

on the Sights and Sounds program and he is organizing people to prepare the footage

for this.

The first of these provincial missions was scheduled this week for the Thailand-Cambodia

border crossing points at Koh Kong, Poipet and O'Smach where Prohas said he would

"deal with" overcharging of fees for tourist visas by Cambodian officials,

in addition to talking about tourism development. "The visa charge is supposed

to be $20 and somehow people are being required to pay 1,000 baht, which is $5 too

much. That must cease."

Post: How important is the Angkor area to Southeast Asia tourism?

Prohas: "Angkor is extremely important to the region; it is THE destination,

so we can be confident that our neighbor members of ASEAN and the Greater Mekong

Subregion will continue to actively promote Cambodia under our cooperative frameworks.

"We welcome this growth. Korea has recently become the largest country of origin

for Cambodia; we now see almost 10,000 Korean tourists per month and this is partly

due to a promotional campaign there."

Post: What message is the government using to market Cambodia to the world?

Prohas: "That this is a stable and safe country, and wonderful for ecological

and cultural tourist experiences. We have moved on from the negative images of the

past and I don't think so-called sex tourism is at all significant."

Post: Some in the travel industry are concerned that while Siem Reap booms the rest

of Cambodia is missing out.

Prohas: "The areas which have top priority for tourism growth are Siem Reap,

Phnom Penh and the coastal line from Kep to Koh Kong. It is my ministry's objective

to ensure those who come here have time to travel to other parts of the country.

"There are many as yet 'undiscovered' temples in many parts of Cambodia. The

coastal areas of Kep, Kampot and Sihanoukville, and the islands of Koh Kong have

enormous tourism appeal. Some have infrastructure needs to be met first, such as

restocking the Kep beach with sand, and upgrading the Kirirom road.

"I want to see Phnom Penh's tourism opportunities fully realised and I'll be

meeting the governor and other city officials soon to talk about this. For example,

classical dancing at Wat Phnom, more outlets for the many artists who are trained

here; and building on the success of the annual water festival, there is scope for

more water-based sport and entertainment, things like jet skiing, speed boating,

wind surfing, paragliding.

"The Phnom Penh riverfront is a unique natural location at the junction of three

big rivers and has a wonderful atmosphere with its cafes and bars."

Post: Travel agents are saying there are too many of them, nearly 200 in Phnom Penh

alone, and sometimes they make only $2 on an international booking. A percentage

of these highly marginal agencies will fail, which is bad for tourism as customers

lose money. Is some regulation needed?

Prohas: "So far we have an open, liberal no-interference policy with regard

to private business. There is no restriction on those who want to register as agents,

provided they meet all the license requirements. It's over to them whether they succeed

or fail."

Post: So, you're saying the law of the jungle should prevail?

Prohas: "It's not a jungle out there, it's a beautiful vibrant, exciting, promising

industry. We do not want to put controls on the industry.

"The potential for visitor numbers is very large and there are benefits to be

shared. For the first six months of 2004 visitor numbers were up more than 40 percent

on the same period last year. This means over 1 million tourists this year and an

estimated 1.5 million next year. The market can easily handle much more than this."

(The requirements to start a new agency are $5,000 deposit in the Ministry of Commerce

bank account to register, and a license fee of $300, annually renewable for $150,

payable to the Ministry of Tourism.

Prayut Voeung, manager for the new Sri Lankan Airlines agency in Phnom Penh, said

there is a strong case for the minister to introduce regulatory control of agencies

to prevent the market being damaged by the fierce competition.)

Post: The Prime Minister has publicly stated he wants the cost of Cambodia package

tours to come down to compete with other Asian countries. What's happening and does

it represent state interference in the private sector?

Prohas: "I agree we have to do this. I do not see this as interference because

the industry has to be competitive to retain market share rather than indulge in

overcharging. We have been talking to air carriers, water and land transporters,

hotels and tour operators. We have been finding out how to facilitate more realistically

priced package tours and I believe it will happen. The incentive for the industry

is long-term survival through competitiveness. I can't give any more detail because

I am only just getting reports back on this."

Post: You say your policy is one of no-interference with travel agencies, yet conversely

you are prepared to intervene to reduce package tour costs. Why the contradictory

policy; was it because the PM requested it?

Prohas: "The policy is we don't interfere whatsoever with private investment

such as travel agency businesses, we welcome such investment without constraint.

With the package tours there was a directive from the PM, but I am sure the issue

would have arisen anyway. The point is package tours here must be competitive if

we are to maximize the potential gains from tourism to help meet our poverty reduction

goals. This of course will also benefit the travel agencies."

Post: Is there a danger that the projected numbers of tourists could damage the attractions

and overwhelm the infrastructure?

Prohas: "There is no threat to temple security or risk of visitor numbers getting

too high. The capacity of the infrastructure - roads, water, waste disposal - is

our greatest challenge, particularly in Siem Reap. The government has plans to deal

with this fairly quickly."

Prohas Beach?

Lay Prohas is no stranger to long boards or big waves, and he is most animated when

talking about aquatic recreation. He got hooked on windsurfing during his high school

years in Melbourne and believes there is windsurfing potential on the Mekong/Tonle

Sap in November-December when the wind is strong from the north.

He has a personal link with Sihanoukville, and claims to have been the catalyst for

the development six years ago of the rocks end of Occheuteal Beach, what is now popularly

known as Serendipity Beach, by parking his deck chair and barbecue under the big

shade tree when the area was devoid of buildings.

"I proclaimed it Prohas Beach," he explained. "After several of these

visits with friends, a local lady decided there was business to be done so she put

up a tent near the tree and began selling food, and for one year we were her only

customers. Then she rented the tent for $200 per month to an American guy named Chuck

who started a makeshift bar in it. And then he built Chuck's Place which later became

Unkle Bob's. It's all changed now but I still regard that tree as mine. Everyone

used to know me there, but I go now and I'm not recognised."

The upshot is that Prohas vows to protect the special character of the Sihanoukville

beaches and their thatched roof bars and guesthouses from domination by casinos and

hotels. "For the small business owners there, I am an ally, a friend in a high

place."

"Chuck" is Charles Grider, 69, and the one who is sueing Unkle Bob's and

six other local businesses for $100,000 for allegedly illegally using the "Serendipity

Beach" name. Grider claims copyright to the name, after a guesthouse he opened

three years ago but has since closed. He is seeking $50,000 from Unkle Bob's, which

uses Serendipity as an address on t-shirts and in advertising.

Grider, who lives in Sihanoukville, could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman

for Unkle Bob's said the original complaint was filed two years ago and since then

the damages claimed and the number of defendants has grown.

"At first we thought it was a joke," he said. "But it turns out to

be a serious Sihanoukville court case, if there is such a thing. He hasn't named

the Lonely Planet, or Rough Guide or any of the local Canby Publications guides,

which all call it Serendipity. Chuck's obviously trying to establish a precedent

so he can then claim money from a whole raft of users. Our lawyer has told us we

have nothing to worry about so we're just treating it as a nuisance."

Draft five-year plan released

In an ongoing effort to harness growth and maximize potential in the sector, the

Ministry of Tourism has recently completed a draft five-year development plan for

Cambodian tourism.

The plan includes 26 major initiatives as well as projections on tourist arrivals

and revenue growth through 2010.

According to the plan, the ministry will focus mainly on capacity building, marketing

and research, education and data collection, all in an effort to bring Cambodia's

burgeoning tourism industry up to international standards and reduce poverty.

Among the initiatives is a national institute for tourism to train industry staff,

foster learning and encourage interest in the sector.

The five-year forecast predicts international visitor arrivals to Cambodia as follows:

2004, 1,045,000; 2006, 1,500,000; 2008, 2,200,000; and in 2010, 3,120,000. The figures

are not separated into air, land and water travellers.

Internal visitor numbers are estimated at 2.5 million in 2004; 3 million in 2006;

3.5 million in 2008; and 4 million in 2010.

Estimated revenue to be earned from tourist spending is $777 million in 2004, $1.2

billion in 2006; $1.6 billion in 2008; and $2.3 billion in 2010.

Car rally comes to Cambodia

Cambodia will take part in the first India-ASEAN car rally scheduled to start November

22 in Guwahati, India.

An estimated 150 drivers and support participants are scheduled to be in Phnom Penh

overnight on December 4-5. They will spend two days at Siem Reap on December 5-7.

The Siem Reap stay will include a tour of Ankgor and a night of performance, art,

music and food at the Raffles Grand d'Angkor Hotel and hosted by Lay Prohas, Minister

of Tourism.

The rally has been developed from an idea proposed by the Indian Prime Minister at

the ASEAN-India Summit meeting at Bali last October to promote infrastructure development

and tourism on the route.

The rally passes through 10 ASEAN countries: India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam,

Cambodia, Thailiand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

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