Travel agents and boat owners are fighting the Sou Ching Co, which runs
the port in Chong Kneas and is striving to regulate tours through the
popular lakeside village.
Sou Ching Co's recently constructed Chong Kneas port.
Sou Ching Co's newly constructed port at Siem Reap's lakeside village of Chong Kneas has put an end to the free-roving tour boats that charge their own prices. But as Sou Ching continues its campaign to unify the tour boats under a single system, the resistance from boat operators and the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents (CATA) increases.
On the waterfront in Siem Reap, a battle is brewing between those who believe that Sou Ching is bringing a desperately needed level of organisation to lake tourism and those who say the company is imposing ill-advised, draconian policies without consulting the people who rely on boat tourism.
Businessman Pany helps manage a tour boat association of 72 families, who were attracted to move to the new port by what he calls the "main idea" of Sou Ching. "The main idea is that there should be one port, one boat association and one price," he said.
On January 28, the families split off from the rest of the tour boats and moved to the Sou Ching port en masse, a decision that has caused them to be labelled as Sou Ching puppets by CATA.
But Pany said that the benefits of cooperating with Sou Ching were clear.
"Before we had a port, the boats were all down a 4-kilometre bumpy road that turned tuk-tuks upside down," he said.
"And there was no security for the boats."
Despite the potential gains, however, many boat owners would rather run the risk of operating solo than submit to the authority of Sou Ching.
"Some people say bad things about Sou Ching," said Eoch So Pa, as he guided a boat to berth in the new port. Eoch So Pa is a boat owner and a member of the boat association that cooperates with Sou Ching. He said that while the regimented new system ensures an equal wage for all, it is a drop in income for many.
"Before the port, some boat owners could earn $200 to $300 per day by doing constant trips," he said. "But now, the boats are rotated, so everyone gets the same number of tours."
Some boat owners are also burned by the fixed pricing system, which prevents them from fleecing tourists.
"They're not losing their livelihood," said a source who works at Sou Ching. "They're losing their corrupt livelihood."
The source claimed that the previous state of Chong Kneas, with low-quality roads, ramshackle boats and predatory prices, was a black eye for Cambodia's tourism. He said that Sou Ching's mission to establish a clear, fair system for purchasing lake tours is a necessary step. But the plan is awry due to rampant mismanagement by Sou Ching.
Jo Crisp, a manager at Intrepid Travel, agreed that tourists were exploited under the old system. "There's no doubt an independent traveller, who hadn't done their research and just went down there, would pay too much," she said. "It's like getting a tuk-tuk."
Crisp believes that Sou Ching's fixed-price system will stop tourists being ripped off, but said the way in which Sou Ching is implementing the system is damaging the large network of tour guides and travel agents who provided safe, reliable and well-priced boat travel.
"We ran a good, fair service with boat operators. We do our costing 12 months in advance and suddenly the prices change," said Crisp.
"There was no consultation with travel agents."
Intrepid Travel is a member of CATA, a group of 170 tourist organisations that have agreed to boycott travel to Chong Kneas until Sou Ching meets with them.
Ang Kim Eang, the president of the association, said that Sou Ching's project is "unfair to the community. They said they were just going to build a port, but they are trying to control all the boats in the area, and that affects the whole community".
Like Crisp, Ang Kim Eang is angry about being left out of the loop.
"They did not inform us about the new pricing; they just implemented it," he said.
Though tour operators could eventually adjust to a new pricing system, many resent having to deal with boat operators through Sou Ching.
"We don't want Sou Ching to be the middle man," said Ang Kim Eang. "How can we determine the quality of the boats?"
While the big idea of Sou Ching was to have "one port, one boat association and one price", Ang Kim Eang mourns the fact that the company has "divided the community".
The once unified association of tour boats is now in two distinct camps, and Sou Ching is in direct opposition with the companies responsible for bringing in tourists.