Sihanoukville celebrated the New Year with its first Sea Festival, estimated to have drawn as many as 50,000 visitors, in an attempt to grow the Kingdom’s tourism appeal beyond Siem Reap.
The festival enticed tourists with a variety of food, arts and sporting events, culminating with a fireworks display along Occheuteal Beach at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
While Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat temples have traditionally been the Kingdom’s most popular destination, the Cambodian government has increasingly tried to draw attention – especially from investors – to the country’s undeveloped coast.
“We did this to attract investors. They need to see everything’s ready, then they will come,” Minister of Tourism Thong Kong, visiting Sihanoukville for the weekend, said.
He noted that Sihanoukville’s acceptance into the Club of the Most Beautiful Bays of the World in May, coupled with the recent addition of flights between the city and Siem Reap by Cambodia Angkor Air, has bolstered the reputation of the budding tourist destination.
Thong Kong said that between 10 to 20 per cent of the more than 1 million tourists that visit Siem Reap every year visit Sihanoukville via intra-country flights, or as many as 200,000. Another 100,000 arrive by boat, bus or car, he said, while Cambodian visitors to the coast number 500,000 a year.
“Investors need to see the infrastructure development,” Thong Kong said. “Now that they see the connectivity, they’ve started investments.” Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who also attended the Sea Festival, said the celebration was “crucial to participate in developing the tourism sector on the Cambodian coast”.
“This event will give so many benefits to advertise about the potential of coastal tourism,” he said, adding that different coastal areas would host the Sea Festival each year.
Minister of Tourism Thong Kong, who said the festival next year would take place in Kep, estimated that as many as 50,000 tourists spent New Year’s weekend in Sihanoukville.
That figure was far greater than the number of hotels rooms in the city, which is another reason the ministry was seeking further investment in the area, Thong Kong said
“We need more hotels here. In Sihanoukville, we have only 2,000 rooms,” he said. “Some people stayed in relatives’ homes, some stayed in pagodas and other places.”
The provincial government also set up 900 tents for visitors who were booked out of local hotels, Thong Kong had previously told the Post. Others camped near the beach, he said.
Business owners welcomed the throngs, saying it was a boost for the local economy.
George Theodorou, 30, a Greek national, first visited Cambodia four months ago and decided soon after to open the Argonaut Beach Bar in Sihanoukville with US$40,000 in capital.
He said last weekend he drew far more than the four to five tables a day he was used to.
“It is the first time I’ve seen so many people come here. It is very good for tourism,” he said, pointing to recent attempts to bolster Sihanoukville’s reputation.
“I think the government is taking a positive step and trying to make tourists love Cambodia and visit Cambodia.”
Nete’s Place bar and restaurant owner Kim Sin, 31, said 200 customers rented tables at her establishment along the Occheuteal Beach, at a cost of $30 per table, excluding food.
“On the weekend or other holidays, the cost ranges between 10,000 riel [$2.50] and 40,000 riel [$10] per day,” she said.
Local fisherman also benefitted from the festival. Lay Sokheang, 39, said shrimp prices jumped to 20,000 riel per kilogram from 15,000 riel per kilogram just over the weekend.
As for tourists, the response seemed largely positive. However, they did notice that the increased traffic in Sihanoukville meant that the cheap prices the city once offered had disappeared.
Meng Bonarin, 40, who works at Electricity of Cambodia (EDC) and spent the weekend with seven family members, said he booked his hotel room a month in advance and the cost had more than tripled to $35.
“Previously, there were not so many people. It was easy to find hotel rooms, and food wasn’t expensive. Now everything has increased in price and you have to book your stay before coming,” he said.