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Festival Visitors Plunge in Capital, Swell on Coast

Sok Chan / Khmer Times Share:
People shop at stalls on Koh Pich island.KT / Fabien Mouret

The number of visitors to the capital for this year’s Water Festival is less than one-fifth last year’s one million due to the cancellation of some festivities late last month by the national government, Phnom Penh Municipal spokesman Long Dimanche said yesterday.

The government cancelled the annual boat races that are the hallmark of the festival late last month, citing low water levels and drought in many areas of the country. 

Mr. Dimanche said about 50,000 people arrived in Phnom Penh for the three-day festival on its first day Tuesday, and that the number rose to 150,000 on Wednesday. He said it increased yesterday but did not provide an estimate.

Mr. Dimanche cited two reasons for the dramatic decline in visitors. “First, some provinces are affected by drought so farmers have to tend to their rice and other crops,” he said. “Second, there is no boat racing in the capital, but it is happening in some provinces, so people are staying in their province [to celebrate],” he said, adding that concerts and other events are also being held in provincial capitals. 

Despite the decline in visitors to the capital, more than 60 retail stores owners selling products such as clothes, cosmetics and electronics around Koh Pich Convention Center said sales were up this year. 

Rom Phearum, a sales clerk at CAM Product store, which sells wallets and belts for men, said that people flocked to Koh Pich yesterday afternoon from 3 pm to 10 pm. “Even though there is no boat racing, there is a concert so it is attracting people and our sales are increasing,” Mr. Phearum said, adding that sales were ahead of expectations. Seak Sreypov, a sales clerk for a children’s clothes store, said sales were good during the festival. This was partly due to discounts, she said, explaining that a price tag of $5 was put on many products. 

Var Danei, a 20-year-old resident of a village in Koh Kong, said this year’s Water Festival in Phnom Penh was far quieter than previous ones. There are fewer people at the recreation centers and the roads are not as crowded, he said. 

“Most Phnom Penh residents and those from other provinces are traveling to coastal provinces or Siem Reap [for the festival],” he said.  

Chheuy Chhorn, deputy director of Siem Reap province’s tourism department, said that the number of visitors to Siem Reap for the festival rose because of the cancellation of boat races in Phnom Penh. 

Visitors from Bantey Meanchey, Oddor Meanchey, Phnom Penh and Preah Vihear, among other places, had flocked to Siem Reap for the festival, Mr. Chhorn said. He added that the provincial government had organized concerts, exhibitions, boat racing, fireworks, and illuminated boats that have been gliding on the town’s river for a week for the benefit of both domestic and foreign tourists. 

“We have not yet received the exact numbers of visitors,” Mr. Chheuy said, suggesting that when the numbers are available they will show an increase over last year. He also said that security had been tight during the festival, with thousands of officers deployed to ensure order and protect people.  

In Sihanoukvillve, all of the hotels and guesthouses are full, said Nou Sophal from the tourism department there. The increase in visitors is visible, he said, adding that security has also been effective.

“Provincial police, tourist police and relevant authorities have been deployed around the city to keep visitors safe,” he added. Officials in the province said the coastal resort had seen a 19 percent rise in tourists during the three-day festival, compared withlast year, with the total number rising to 98,103 as of late yesterday. Most, 86,821, were domestic tourists. Their numbers rose 20 percent this year. Foreign tourists totaled 11,282, up 14 per cent over last year, according to the provincial tourism department. 

The government has cancelled the Water Festival three times since 2010, when a stampede on a bridge to Koh Pich left more than 350 people dead.  In 2011, one year after the tragedy, the festival was canceled due to massive flooding that displaced more than 250,000 people. In 2012, the festival was canceled following the death of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who died the month before the event was scheduled to take place. The festival was canceled again in 2013, after the disputed national election, which led to a year-long boycott of the National Assembly by the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which claimed it won the vote.

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