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For festival, any water will do

People relax at a beach in Preah Sihanouk province in 2012. The lack of celebratory events in Phnom Penh for the Water Festival has seen a bump in domestic tourism to other parts of the country.
People relax at a beach in Preah Sihanouk province in 2012. The lack of celebratory events in Phnom Penh for the Water Festival has seen a bump in domestic tourism to other parts of the country. Vireak Mai

For festival, any water will do

This year’s subdued Water Festival festivities in the capital, where traditional boat races were cancelled, has resulted in a bump in tourism in the provinces as Cambodians use the three-day holiday to visit their families, enjoy cultural activities and lounge on beaches.

“It was unusually quiet in the capital today, as most of the city’s residents travelled to the provinces for the holiday,” said Ang Kim Eang, president of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents.

He said last year’s water festival, which saw traditional boat races held for the first time in Phnom Penh since 2010, kept most residents in the city for the event and drew an additional one million Cambodians from the countryside.

But without the festival’s main draw, the flood of visitors to the capital was kept to a trickle, while Kim Eang estimated that 60 per cent of the capital’s residents left the city to spend their holiday elsewhere.

“Many of them went to other provinces such as Siem Reap, which still has boat racing during the festival,” he said.

Chheuy Chhorn, deputy director of Siem Reap province’s tourism department, said concerts and exhibitions had been organised to attract tourists to Siem Reap during the Water Festival.

He said most of the city’s hotels reported a modest spike in booking yesterday, which he attributed to Cambodian tourists coming to watch the boat races on the slow-moving river that dissects the provincial city.

Chhoy Saran, a receptionist at the Monoreach Angkor Hotel, estimated that the occupancy rate at the mid-range hotel had more than doubled compared to last week.

“We received a lot of domestic guests on the first day,” she said, adding that the hotel was nearly fully booked this week.

At the nearby Sokha Angkor Hotel, executive assistant manager Bun Meng said the increase in bookings was less noticeable, which he attributed to the limited incomes of Cambodian families.

“A lot of domestic tourists came to join the festival, but they mostly prefer ‘local’ hotels over high-level ones because they want to save money,” he said.

Many Phnom Penh residents skipped the boat races altogether and instead made a beeline for the white sand beaches of Sihanoukville, where hotels and restaurants reported high turnover.

Thai Dara, acting general manager at the Sokha Beach Resort said the surge of beach-goers filled most of the resort’s 391 rooms.

“Our standard rooms are full already,” he said, estimating the hotel’s occupancy at 80 per cent, compared to about 50 per cent a week ago.

But he said it was unclear how much extra traffic was generated due to the cancellation of the boat races, as the hotel was also heavily booked during the Water Festival.

Restaurants were also reporting brisk business as upcountry visitors to the coast tucked into fresh seafood. Soem Chumroth, owner of a restaurant located on Ochheuteal Beach, said Cambodian customers outnumbered foreigners 8 to 1 yesterday. On a normal day it is the other way around.

“Most domestic tourists come to relax on the beach and enjoy eating seafood,” she said. “I had as many customers as I could handle on the first day of the festival.”

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