Optimism is in sight for the upcoming Khmer New Year holiday for a once-bustling village on the island of Koh Rong Samloem.
Cambodia’s tourism sector has been reeling from the loss of the average 6 million annual tourists since the borders were mostly closed earlier this year.
As the COVID-19 pandemic first spread around the globe, many flights were cancelled or postponed meaning many tourism-related businesses were still active with many overseas visitors finding themselves stuck in limbo.
In recent months, however, as some countries around the world have gradually gained control over the deadly virus, tourists have slowly been making there way out of the country on the intermittent services now offered by several airlines.
This has left the tourism industry in a vacuum-like state with many businesses wondering when – or if – foreign guests will return.
M’pai Bay on the island of Koh Rong Samloem is no different in this respect and is perhaps a perfect example of the tourism industry in Cambodia currently.
It is a small fishing village located on the northern coast of the idyllic paradise island. Since 2012 Western businesses have been establishing themselves in the bustling Cambodian village which is home to approximately 450 Khmer citizens (150 families) and between 40 and 100 Western expats, depending on the season.
Around the beginning of April, shortly after Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the closing of borders, the local chief of the village in conjunction with the expats and business owners decided to take action to protect their community and banned all non-essential travel to and from the village. All tourism boats were banned and guesthouses were instructed to take themselves offline on booking platforms to prevent any new customers entering the village.
“It was a strange time. All of a sudden we had a lot of people asking us questions to which we had no answers,” Karen Scott, from Bong’s guesthouse, said.
“It was the right thing to do for the village here at the time. Everyone was so scared and no one was sure of what was the best way to protect people.”
The village remained in lockdown for a couple of months. Like many businesses in Cambodia, business owners and locals were left feeling unsure of what the best practice was to follow regarding self-isolation and self-distancing.
Around the middle of May, the business community of M’pai Bay reopened and the local boat companies started running once again. Now the community was faced with a new problem: There were simply no more tourists coming to the island.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak the business owners have struggled greatly and the pressure on the local community has also been great. More than 100 locals are normally employed by the businesses in the village and now the businesses have let go of nearly all of their workforce.
“It was a tough decision, but the honest truth was that we couldn’t afford to keep the staff on any longer and there simply was nothing we could do. When the tourists return and we have enough money to spend, of course we will try our best to re-employ our staff,” said Chris Black, of Hornbill Guesthouse.
Now thoughts in the village have turned to the rescheduled Khmer New Year holiday. The local business community is now coming together, cleaning the village, doing maintenance and making improvements to their businesses and there are plans to hold a number of activities and events to entertain any tourists that may want to spend the holiday in the village.
“This could be a real lifeline for the village as a whole” Sharon Opstal, of Dahlia guesthouse, said. “If we can get some of the tourism from the local Khmers and expats of Cambodia we could have a really excellent time over the Khmer New Year Holidays.”