Minister for Tourism Veng Sereyvuth - "Life continues".
Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth is in charge of luring foreign visitors to Cambodia.
In the midst of international uncer-tainty and a global economic slowdown, that is
no easy task.
Minister, firstly can you tell us something about your past and your rise to the
senior position you now hold?
I was born in 1958 in Prey Veng province. When the war broke out in 1970 I was stuck
there for a year. In 1971 I arrived in Phnom Penh and continued my education until
1975 when the country fell to the Khmer Rouge. I would sell ice-cream, bread, soup
- all these things - and then I would go to school next to the Chrouy Changvar bridge.
Just like all the other people I was told to leave the city, because in three days
the bombs would be dropped by the United States. They were shooting just above your
head and shouting "Get out, get out". We jammed up Highway 1, and then
the Khmer Rouge started killing people that first night. They rounded up people and
shot them just across from where I was sleeping by the bridge.
We made our journey on Highway 1 and then turned to our province. People were going
everywhere. People were being killed every day. It was a tough life and everyone
has their own story. I was interrogated and asked all the time: "Are you a student?
Are you a soldier?" At one stage they wanted to kill me, but luck, destiny [kept
I lost my younger brother and buried him myself. He said to me: "I want to see
my mum." She was in the hospital and we felt sorry for him so we took him there.
Three days later my sister ran back and said he had caught diarrhea. I was there
immediately, but he didn't recognize me, because the eyes had started to sink, turned
back [in his head]. Nobody could save him.
It was a painful time - every single family was affected. Sometimes whole families
perished. And it was cruel the way they killed people. They tied people like a pig
with the bamboo in the middle.
In 1977 we were rounded up again and sent to Battambang. When the Vietnamese came
in 1979 I escaped and went to Thailand where I stayed for one year. I arrived in
New Zealand in September 1980.
I graduated with a BA in Political Science from Victoria University in Wellington
and then came back and worked in Bangkok. In the 1993 election I was elected as an
MP and appointed as a minister to the Prime Minister's office with Excellency Sok
An. I was a co-Minister, and also appointed as Minister for Tourism.
In 1998 we had another election and I was again Minister of Tourism. One month ago
I was promoted to be a senior minister.
The attacks in the US September 11 have struck a huge blow to tourism worldwide.
As Cambodia heads into its prime tourism months, what impact do you expect here?
I think about this in a positive way. Life continues, and freedom and traveling are
part of human society. I think in the [near] future tourism will bounce back. It
is just one of those incidents like the evolution of our society after the Khmer
That experience taught me a lot, so I look at this in the brightest way possible.
[I look at] the future plans for this city, at the potential that this country has
- just for example the river where the Mekong and the Tonle Sap join could generate
millions of dollars in exchange every night. The future is enormous.
Another thing is that Cambodian people are rich in culture. It is just a question
of time before we come up again and be a civilized nation. [The people] are friendly,
forthcoming, outreaching, gentle, smiling. We have a culture of adaptability - we
are not stiff. If you are stiff like a brick wall you cannot [survive]. But around
the globe Cambodians do quite well, because we are rich in culture, proud and having
Angkor in our blood we can revive easily.
A lot of the violence in the society is not of their own making. The years of destruction,
of war, of starvation, that turned the people into stomachs. Stomach was number one,
the priority - everything was to satisfy the stomach. So the culture, the dignity,
the respect, the rules, were all gone. However, once people gain access to economic
wealth this culture will become influential once again, and this will play a big
part in tourism.
What measures is your department taking to try to reduce the short-term impact?
We need to refocus our marketing efforts. I have just signed a letter announcing
to the world that we will continue to provide security to tourists after the attack
[in the US] and that there is peace and stability. We have to convince the market
- the market is nervous.
Number two, I have redirected the marketing effort a little bit. You have to look
at the figures: 56 percent of our tourists come from Asia-Pacific, so that is the
main focus. We must reassure them.
About 17 million Japanese tourists traveled around the globe in 2000. Around 9 million
go to the US and Europe, 8 million come to Asia-Pacific. What about the 9 million
that go to Europe and the US? Where will they go? There is an opportunity. But we
will experience a drop in tourists this year - we have already had thousands of cancellations.
Both the government and donors agree that tourism is a key part of Cambodia's
future earning ability, along with garment exports. The future of the latter is in
some doubt for various economic reasons - do you think it is wise to rely on potentially
one income stream in a newly-stable country?
I would love to see the government diversify its areas for economic well-being. Basic
materials in Cambodia are all imported, so we have to move into that so people can
get jobs and generate income.
Air links [need to be made cheaper]. Everything is really expensive at the moment,
which is a disadvantage. Having Angkor Wat does not mean we have everything for tourism
- it is a very, very competitive business. People may choose to go to other places.
Certainly, I want a reduction in the price package for tourists [visa fees, airline
costs, entrance fees to Angkor Wat.] I am looking to see where I can bargain with
the government. The policy in tourism is to go for numbers of arrivals. If per arrival
you can get up to $1,000 [spent on a visit] per tourist, it makes no sense to have
a visa fee of $20 that adds to the cost of the package.
The market shows that tourists want more and more all the time. When they [travel]
they don't want to go to only one destination, they want to go to multiple destinations,
but the pricing stops them from coming here.
We also need to work with other countries in the region. There are no borders in
tourism and we have to provide better connections to facilitate that. We have to
talk with our friends in the region about policy to allow tourists to travel. Infrastructure,
river travel, air travel, and the roads must all improve.
So to summarize, when I paint a beautiful picture of the future it is based on this:
[In only a few years] there will be linkages across the country and across the region.
You will be able to drive from Phnom Penh to China, Vietnam, Singapore. I see a good
One common criticism of Cambodia is that other than Angkor Wat, there isn't much
else to attract visitors in the way that countries like Thailand or Vietnam have.
What would you say to that?
I don't say that they are totally wrong. I understand from their point of view that
Cambodia is at an early stage. How can a country that has been developing tourism
for just a few years be like a country that has had tourism for three or four decades?
How can we offer a destination if people cannot get here? How can we offer choices
if we do not yet have the opportunity to bring [people to] those areas?
Look at Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri - they are magnificent. Imagine a resort built
there with a beautiful airport just like in Koh Samui [in Thailand]. It is simple
to do. You need a couple of million dollars, but there is no investment at the moment.
The Tonle Sap is unique. What makes Cambodia different from the rest of the world
and the region is opportunity. We have never been given the opportunities.
The deal giving Sokimex the concession to collect fees for entry to the Angkor
Wat temple complex has been criticized as unfair for the government. What is your
opinion on the concession, will the deal be re-negotiated, and if so, what should
Sokimex pay to retain its concession?
The government has adapted its policy on the concession once already and renegotiated
with the company for a better share. I can say with confidence that once the government
feels it needs to do it again, it will do so. This government has no barrier on what
it wishes to do if it believes it is in its interest.
If a company is benefiting from a heritage site, it must contribute to better protection
for our heritage. And they have to play a good role in protecting that and paying
back to the industry.
One area that Cambodia has yet to tap is eco-tourism, yet the country has the
Cardamom Mountains, the largest wilderness area in Southeast Asia. Does the MoT recognize
the potential of this area, and what plans do you have to protect and promote the
First of all, the country has to identify areas for eco-tourism. Second, the principle
worldwide is that sustainable development is a non-negotiable criteria: you are talking
about the property of tourism being protected or destroyed over time. You don't want
it to be destroyed or there will be no more asset and the industry itself will die.
We believe that the eastern part of the country is for the time being worth more
than other areas because it is adjacent to Vietnam and Laos, and we have the river
crossing nearby so we can connect the roads up there. However, we should not [focus
on] the concept of five star luxury and sophisticated [hotels]. I don't believe in
We are all under pressure from work today. We want to get away to the most basic,
natural environment, which is in itself an attraction for tourists. There should
be no high-rise, blue glass luxury that turns the landscape; it should be integrated
into the environment. And we have to make local people benefit from tourism. We have
just finished a plan detailing how and where to have eco-tourism in the eastern part
of Cambodia, which I will submit to the government very soon. Once the government
approves the concept plan, we will have to get money from the private sector.
What would the MoT's response be if the Central Cardamoms were handed back to
logging companies to exploit in the ruinous way they have managed Cambodia's other
The policy on tourism is spelt out clearly by the government. My Prime Minister clearly
stated that natural and cultural tourism [is the future]. I hope that the government
will continue to protect this natural environment for its future tourism potential.
The dark side of tourism is doubtless pedophiles traveling to Cambodia. WorldVision
brought out a report in July 2000 that described the links between tourism and child
sex in which it predicted a rise in the numbers of child sex tourists here. It strongly
recommended that the MoT become far more involved in efforts to curtail child sex.
Can you tell us what steps the MoT has taken over the past year to do so?
First we have a law in place on human trafficking, which is something we can rely
on. We have repeatedly discussed this and are looking at ways to improve the image.
We are working closely with international organizations and embassies to support
us in very similar ways to the recommendations. We are working with taxis, hotels,
At this early stage I can only say that we are trying to identify practical measures.
Of course there are some recommendations already there and we will implement them.
Secondly, I finished today the draft Tourism Law, which has some clauses which deal
with sex tourism, and contains heavy punishment for these people. We are going to
tighten the screw even more. We will make those people see that that we are serious.
Through this we will be able to bring some positive outcomes. I intend to put these
measures into practice in 2002 and I think with my law coming up we can do a lot
Are these steps sufficient to prevent Cambodia being regarded internationally
as an easy place to have sex with children, or do you think further efforts are needed?
No, no, no. More is needed - what I talked about is only a little [amount of what
needs to be done]. It is a new issue for us, to be frank, and we still have a lack
of experience. It is not proven what measures will be more successful. It is a process
and we still have a lot to learn, but I can tell you about our determination: there
should be no place for these people here. Cambodia has so much to offer. We do not
need [child] sex tourism, although some people do come here to exploit that and [take
advantage] of our economic weakness, which makes room for that. We are not in a position
to stop this 100 percent.
Corruption is a long-standing problem in Cambodia and your ministry was doubtless
embarrassed in September when Che Sambo, the under-secretary of state, was accused
of selling tourist visas to the US for huge sums of money. Were you surprised to
hear of the allegations of corruption within your ministry?
Of course I was surprised. This kind of thing is not nice for any government department
and certainly did not make me feel good at all, definitely not. I am prepared to
say three things on that: one is that the leadership of the MoT had no knowledge
of the so-called promotional program [under which the alleged scam was perpetrated].
Second, out of the six accused, five were not MoT officials. Third the government
has taken over the investigation and I ask for your understanding that I can only
make further comments after the government has come out with its findings. I am not
aware of any other MoT staff involvement.
Turning to politics - the February 2002 commune elections are seen by many as
a powerful opportunity for Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party to raise their profile
at a local level. What are your thoughts, as a senior Funcinpec minister, on the
It is good that we are going to have this election. It will make institutions operate
better and respond more quickly, because [the local level] sees everything. Now the
game is open and people have a fair chance, but I cannot speculate on the outcome
- it depends on so many things.
It makes me feel very proud that we have for the first time an improving political
environment. However, please don't expect [it will run] 100 percent smoothly. In
any election there is no 100 percent smooth, particularly in Cambodia with its past
conflict and factional fighting. There was war at one time between these parties.
However, this country has come a long way. I value peace highly and very much value
the peaceful environment that we are now in. That to me is more important than who
will win the commune elections or the national elections [in 2003]. At the end of
the day a peaceful environment is what counts because through peace there comes development.
Funcinpec candidates are not as vulnerable as those of the opposition SRP, but
nor are they completely safe either, as the murder of one candidate earlier this
year showed. What steps would your party like to see to protect not just its candidates,
but the very principle of grass-roots democracy?
As I said, the environment is improving and we are working through our respective
administrative apparatuses. There are two parts here: one, the government as government.
That means the authority, the police, the military forces, the commune and district
heads. They work to promote understanding and protection of freedom and not resorting
I must say that is working quite well. There is more understanding on how the provincial
authorities and [others] are protecting the rules and environment of democracy. I
think there is a generally good environment on that aspect. The other aspect is between
parties as well. CPP and Funcinpec have signed a deal not to resort to violence and
that is the framework we are working with.
Funcinpec's leaders are criticized as not standing up to voice their opinions
when there is conflict with the CPP. Has Funcinpec recovered its independence since
the 1997 coup, and if not, do you consider the lack of independence and the lack
of a critical voice within the coalition to be a problem?
I see it this way: after the election there was some contest about the election result,
but that happens in other countries too. It happened in Cambodia, but that was settled
and we formed a government. I think that if you decide to form a coalition government
you are entering a contract. Whether it is legally binding, I leave to your imagination,
but there is a certain degree of binding in terms of policy and in terms of how government
The government operates on cabinet meetings every week where there are discussions
and viewpoints, and then policy is decided. Ministers can raise opposition to certain
papers that are presented and express their views. At the same time you have to respect
other people's opinions and the rules of the game, which is that at the end of the
day the Prime Minister will have to make his decision. When he decides I consider
the matter closed. This is how governments work.
I also would like to say that coalition is about how to get the government to run
effectively and efficiently. Each department has its respective roles and for my
part I try to do my utmost. I am in no way perfect and in no way able to do everything
right, but I am prepared to learn and to change if what I did was wrong.
What occupies my mind is how I can make my ministry work and respond to crises, such
as the attacks on the United States, and how as a ministry implementing the policy
of the government, we can do that job effectively.