Sihanoukville, with its sleepy population of little over 250,000 people, is Cambodia’s fourth-largest city and the gateway to the beaches and islands. Coastal tourism has increasingly been focused on Sihanoukville in recent years with Kep (a favourite in times gone by) and Koh Kong offering little for the appetites of foreign and international tourists other than the local seafood.
With foreign and domestic tourists focusing coastal visits upon Sihanoukville, one could be forgiven for thinking the town would be full of resorts, with a wide variety of entertainment and dining options as well as a raft of four- and five-star hotels.
The truth is quite different. On public holidays, demand for accommodation far outstrips supply, prices double and the range of accommodation is sadly limited to simple guesthouses and two- and three-star hotels, with only a small number of exceptions. The beautiful boutique hotels seen in the likes of Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Battambang are non-existent in Sihanoukville, partially owing to the relative youth of the city (the history of Sihanoukville only dates back to 1955) and hence a lack of built heritage and architecture. Yet year upon year, increasing numbers of tourists flock to Sihanoukville, but the city has changed only a little.
There are several reasons that have kept change muted in Sihanoukville.
The area is very seasonal, with monsoon rains limiting the peak season; a large percentage of international visitors stay in Cambodia for a very short time, flying into Siem Reap to see the temples and then flying out again; many of the foreign visitors who travel to Sihanoukville are on low budgets with very little spending power.
Therefore the coast has not flourished.
But are things about to change.
There are positive signs, which are slowly producing an increasingly positive outlook for Cambodia’s coastal capital. In 2011 Cambodia’s coastline was inducted into the “World’s Most Beautiful Bays Club”, a coveted title which provides great marketing potential; in 2012, Sihanoukville Airport opened its doors offering flights between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville; in 2012, a Thai-Cambodian company completed a stylish new boutique hotel and new hotel developments have broken ground with designs to offer four-star accommodation, and the government has strongly advocated its desire for Sihanoukville to become a boutique location, aiming for middle- to high-end tourism.
CBRE Cambodia is beginning to see the effects of such positives moves, and a sense of optimism is becoming palpable. Yet caution is warranted and a decisive factor will remain that of access. Without international flights into the province, coupled with a poor safety record along National Road No 4, well-heeled travelers will continue to bypass Cambodia’s coast. The airport remains the key to unlock the vast potential of the coastal areas around Sihanoukville.
Sihanoukville will change and develop, and CBRE Cambodia believes the future is bright for Sihanoukville. The town, and the islands, have the chance to develop in an eco-centric, sustainable and unique fashion, a goal which many are committed to, and desire to see achieved.