The right to sell tickets to Angkor Park and Koh Ker Temple has already been privatized. Sokha Hotels Co. Ltd, a branch of Sokimex, is trying to strike a deal for the other six sites on the map.
C ambodia's largest corporation has applied for exclusive ticketing rights to six remote temples in four provinces in the northwestern and central parts of the country.
Sokha Hotels Co. Ltd, a branch of Sokimex, already owns the ticketing rights to one of Southeast Asia's biggest crowd-pullers - the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap province.
The company's current investment proposal seeks sole ticketing rights to Preah Vihear temple in Preah Vihear province, Sambor Prey Kuk temple in Kampong Thom province, Banteay Chmar and Banteay Top temples in Banteay Meanchey province, and Ek Phnom and Wat Banan in Battambang province.
A decision (sach k'dei Samrach) passed by the government on December 12 established a joint commission to continue to study the restoration and development of these temples, opening the way for commercialization. The new commission replaces an older one that was established in 2002.
"This Joint-Commission shall be responsible for... studying and evaluating the legal and technical matters of the project subject to review and endorsement during the 'Single Entrance-Exit' meeting in conjunction with an investment proposal of Sokha Hotel," stated the decision, translated into English by solicitors BNG Co. Ltd.
However, the exact nature of the investment proposal and how the single entrance-exit system would work remain unclear.
The joint commission is under the Council for Development in Cambodia, but CDC members declined comment, saying the matter was for Sokimex to discuss.
Sokimex director Sok Kong also refused to discuss the proposal, saying via email that the details have yet to be clarified.
But sources in the Sam Rainsy Party, the Ministry of Tourism and the National Tourism Authority confirmed that the company is seeking to control ticketing at the temples.
Opposition MP Son Chhay was concerned that the revenue would not be used appropriately if the proposal was approved.
He said Sokimex and the government make tens of millions of dollars from the Angkor Park contract by giving only a small proportion to the Apsara Authority, the body responsible for the park's maintenance.
"Look at the number of tourists who visit Siem Reap, the cost of the tickets to Angkor Park, and the funds that Apsara gets," said Chhay.
The Apsara Authority received $3.1 million in 2003, when Ministry of Tourism statistics show over 400,000 international visitors to Siem Reap. Ticket costs range from $20 (single-day pass) to $60 (week-long pass).
According to the current Angkor contract, 10 percent of revenue is supposed to be set aside for a conservation fund, run by Apsara. In 2003, this figure was $350,000, according to the authority's statistics.
But Chhay estimated annual revenue from ticket sales to be about $20 million.
He accused Sokimex of keeping the numbers of official visitors to Angkor Park well below actual numbers, so the company can share the excess with the government.
"Sokimex work closely with the CPP, supporting their leadership for many years. They control all the major business contracts in the country," said Chhay. "They are profiting from a corrupt government system."
Sokimex has had their eye on controlling ticket sales throughout the country for a few years, Chhay said. "It's a big money-making project."
Others in the tourism industry, speaking on condition of anonymity, have called Sokimex the business arm of the government. Sokimex has a number of other business ventures, including an extensive network of gas stations across the country.
But Sokimex boss Sok Kong wrote that the company only keeps 10 percent of the revenue from ticket sales after paying the government and covering taxes and costs.
"And that [10 percent] is re-invested into new projects," wrote Kong.
He added that Sokimex had good relationships with many parties to maintain good business links.
"We do not have close ties with only one political party."
Kong did not comment on how much revenue was generated from ticket sales each year.
The Ministry of Economy and Finance controls the government's share of ticket revenue from Angkor Park. Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.
Despite the privatization of ticket sales to temples, the Cambodian Constitution states that heritage sites are state public property, owned by the state and its people and protected by the state.
Despite complaints from the opposition, tourism operators said the ticket service at Angkor Park is efficient, eliminating the widespread sale of fake tickets that led to lost revenue.
"They seem to get government contracts very easily," one industry source said on condition of anonymity. "But it's better than having all the employees stealing the money."
Bun Narith, executive director of the Apsara Authority, said ticket revenue was only $10,000 to $20,000 per year before Sokimex took over ticketing services from the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
From this amount, salaries for restoration workers and administrators were paid, added Narith.
"Sokha Hotels offered what we considered a significant financial contract at the time," he said.
Sokimex invested in the ticketing rights to Angkor Park in 1999. In the original contract, the company was required to pay the national budget $1 million per year while pocketing the revenue from ticket sales.
Under the current contract, about 78 percent of ticket revenue goes to the government. For additional funding beyond the conservation fund, Apsara has to apply to the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
The current contract is better than the original one, but Apsara should receive a larger share of ticket sales revenue, said Narith.
The ticketing contract for Angkor Park will be reviewed again in August by representatives of the government and the Apsara Authority, and will be monitored by the International Monetary Fund.
Thong Kong, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Tourism, praised Sokimex's handling of ticket sales at Angkor Park.
When asked if Sokimex's investment proposal for remote temples should be approved, he said: "I don't care who takes care of it, as long as they do it well."
Only one other private company, Kham Someth Construction, has ticketing rights to temples outside of Siem Reap province. The company negotiated the right to sell tickets to the Koh Ker temple in Preah Vihear province after they invested millions of dollars in upgrading infrastructure, such as access roads.
Narith said Kham Someth pays 35 percent of revenue from ticket sales to the Apsara Authority.
Currently, temples outside of Siem Reap are under the care of provincial authorities, supervised by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. Tour companies have to apply to provincial governors for permission to sell tickets, said Chuch Phoeurn, Secretary of State for the ministry.
But Phoeurn said there are insufficient resources to restore other temples. He said there is only one team currently assigned to look after two sites: Banteay Chmar temple in Banteay Meanchey province and Koh Ker temple.
"They are already very damaged," said Phoeurn, adding it would take up to ten years to fully repair the two temples.
"We have a proposal to the government for more funding to look after more sites, but we don't have the resources at the moment."