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Struggling Sihanoukville

Struggling Sihanoukville

News this week that two domestic airlines plan to offer flights between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville town was positive for the Kingdom’s tourism industry, though Cambodia’s coast is still far from being a top destination.

Cambodia Angkor Air and Tonle Sap Airlines have said they will begin trafficking passengers between the two destinations by the end of the year, with the former saying delays into 2012 are possible.
Regardless, the launch of these new routes begged a question.

As tourists to Siem Reap most often enter Cambodia from Thailand, why would these visitors choose Sihanoukville over any of that country’s world-class beaches and resorts?

Sure, the coasts of Sihanoukville this year were accepted into the Club of the Most Beautiful Bays in the World.

The view is far less flattering, however, when one considers what lies onshore.

The area is still very much undeveloped and lacking in many of the typical amenities found at most beach destinations.

In fact, media reports yesterday said cruise ship arrivals to Sihanoukville fell 31 percent year-on-year through June due in part to “a lack of attractions”.

That’s to say nothing of the raft of safety issues that still plague visitors Sihanoukville.

Compare that to Thailand’s Phuket Island, which boasts a more complete– and largely worry-free – tourist experience.

Sihanoukville for the foreseeable future seems destined to be a backpacker destination, and not one for tourists looking for a more comfortable stay at the beach.

Cost-conscious backpackers aren’t going to generate the revenues Cambodia is hoping for.

Even so, there are some who will defend Sihanoukville.

Mohan Gunti, advisor to the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents and a member of the government’s tourism working group, said the area offers something Thailand’s more developed resorts cannot.

“They are still virgin, unspoiled and unpolluted beaches,” he said of Sihanoukville’s coastline.

“So you can see the beauty and nature at their pristine stage.”

He claimed specific groups of tourists, such as those backpackers, sought out the privacy and quiet found along Cambodia’s coast.

Mohan Gunti also pointed to what he claimed was the natural landscape the Kingdom offers visitors if they travel inland from the shore.

Admittedly, Cambodia’s beach tourism industry is in a development stage, he said.

That is evident from any number of large tourism investment projects under construction in Koh Kong, Kep, Kampot and Sihanoukville, he added.

“In a couple of years, these beaches will be 100 percent ready to meet the needs of the beach tourists.”

Indeed, Sihanoukville’s 62-hectare Pearl City Asia development, when completed in 2014, will boast over a thousand residences, a shopping mall, a school and a hospital.

The US$600 million site is expected to be finished in 2014. Therefore, a part of fuelling Sihanoukville’s growth is offering these flights from Siem Reap, Mohan Gunti said, as “access always brings the people”.

Once these pieces are put into place, “it’s only a matter of time” before the area reaches its full potential, he said.

While that is true, one wonders how much time may be involved considering Sihanoukville’s still early stage of development.

And given that, one also wonders how long it will be until these newly announced flights are profitable for the carriers offering them.

Contact Tom at [email protected].

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