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Near-empty islands long for boost from Khmer New Year

Jason Boken / Khmer Times Share:
A deserted resort on Koh Rong Samloem. Facebook

Off the South Coast of Cambodia lies some  of the most beautiful idyllic islands in Southeast Asia.

Thatched-roof huts, silky sand beaches and crystalline waters make these venues the go-to spot for relaxing in a hammock and soaking up the sun. Some of the beaches on the islands have even been voted some of the best beaches in the world (voted by National Geographic magazine).

Since earlier this year, though, things have started to slow down in the tourism sector because of COVID-19. Consequently, the number of people visiting the likes of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem has plummeted.

The once busy resorts, hostels, bars and beaches are now sitting empty the majority of the time. Some of them are even offering bungalows on the beachfront for as low as $3.50 per night. But there is some light at the end of the tunnel as the new Khmer New Year dates were recently announced.

Prime Minister Hun Sen approved the request by the Ministry of Economy and Finance to formally set a five-day national holiday from August 17 to 21 to make up for the Khmer New Year holiday in April that was postponed.

Mr Hun Sen said from now there will be enough time for business owners (of hotels, guesthouses and transportation services) to be ready to welcome tourists.

Reports from the islands seem to show that business owners are doing just that. Stephen Underwood, owner of The Big Easy bar and hostel,  on Koh Rong Samloem, said: “During the last few months we saw a decrease in customers of around 90 percent. This is obviously devastating for any business. We have only really seen locals visiting on weekends and expats who live here [in Cambodia]. Them spending money here has helped to keep us afloat. We decided while we have been quiet to close down some of our accommodation and renovate it, ready for when things start to pick up. We are expecting Khmer New Year to be one of those times.”

Koh Rong, the neighbouring island, is just as quiet. There are reports of some bars selling drinks at rock bottom prices to entice the expats living on the island to drink in their establishments. Hostels and resorts are also slashing their prices by up to 80 percent in the hope that this will bring in any domestic tourists who will then spend money on food and drink.

For some businesses, though, they are already seeing bookings flowing in for the national holiday. Dave Dobson, part-owner of Reef on the Beach, on Long Set Beach, Koh Rong, said: “Over the past few months we have seen sales drop 80 percent but that has given us time to do some renovations. We have also been adapting our resort to give more of a Khmer-orientated service and also focus more on big groups. We are looking forward to Khmer New Year. We already have 150 people booked in to stay with us over a 10-day duration.”

Not only is it the businesses on Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem feeling the impact of the lack of tourists visiting the islands. There are around five boat companies that take holidaymakers from the pier in Sihanoukville across to the islands.

Now a lot of the boats are not running full time. A spokesperson for the company Speed Ferry Cambodia said: “Since COVID-19 we have seen an 80 percent decrease in people travelling to both Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem. Some days boats that are supposed to head out are cancelled because of a lack of customers. This is not good for business but we are sure Khmer New Year will see the islands busy and all of our boats will be full.”

High season is set to start again in late November going into early December. Most businesses on the southern coast are preparing and setting up ahead of this in the hope that soon tourists can start returning to Cambodia.

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