Despite opposing claims by leading sector figures, local authorities in Preah Sihanouk say tourist numbers in the coastal province continue to experience a healthy growth.
During the first nine months of the year, the number of visitors – both local and foreign – to Preah Sihanouk grew by 6.65 percent, totalling 1.61 million people, said Taing Sochet Krisna, director of the provincial tourism department.
According to Mr Krisna, nearly 1.2 million locals visited the region from January to September, a 2.72 percent increase. The number of international tourists rose at a faster rate, increasing by 19.45 percent to reach almost 415,000 people.
However, these figures contradict claims made by other prominent figures in the tourism sector.
“There has been a nearly 70 percent drop in the number of locals visiting the region,” said Thourn Sinan, chairman of the Cambodian chapter of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).
“More and more local tourists are now choosing to visit the islands or Kampot and Kep instead of Sihanoukville,” Mr Sinan said.
Mr Sinan attributed the drop to an insufficient supply of accommodation options and high prices across the board. He said that many local businesses have been taken over by Chinese nationals, a fact that local travellers resent and that was causing a “lack of Cambodian smiles and smells.”
Preah Sihanouk tourism department’s Mr Krisna said that those that claim that the flow of local tourists is dwindling are only taking a superficial look at Sihanoukville’s town centre and Ochheuteal Bay, not taking into consideration the rest of the province.
“We have officials recording data for every resort and tourism area in the province. Data from hotels, guesthouses and apartments shows that numbers are on the rise,” Mr Krisna said.
“While we acknowledge that there has been a decline of local tourists during some seasons in the past, we can confidently say that from January to September this year the number of local tourists has increased,” Mr Krisna added.
However, Mr Krisna agrees with Mr Sinan in that there isn’t enough accommodation options to fill current demand.
“The number of hotels and guesthouses is not enough to accommodate local visitors, especially in Ochheuteal Beach, where most establishments are owned by Chinese nationals who charge high prices. Because of this, a lot of local tourists are choosing to go to other places, like other beaches near Ochheuteal or the islands,” he said.
To combat the accommodation shortage, Mr Krisna encouraged local businesspeople to invest in budget and mid-range guesthouses and hotels in the area.
Meanwhile, PATA’s Mr Sinan says tourist numbers will continue their downward trend if no action is taken.
“The government must straighten law enforcement, invest into infrastructure – including waste management, water and electricity – and put a cap on the amount of Chinese investment allowed in the area,” Mr Sinan, adding that “it is important to keep the identity of Cambodian culture.”
Interior Minister Sar Kheng last month ordered the creation of a taskforce to provide additional support to provincial authorities cracking down on crimes committed by foreign nationals.
Mr Kheng said that crimes plaguing Sihanoukville include murder, drug trafficking and gambling, which has led to extortion and kidnapping cases as the foreign population there has ballooned.
Earlier this month, Mr Kheng was asked by reporters about a drop in national tourists to the province because they fear for their safety.
“Because of that issue, we created a taskforce to go there and help solve the crime problem,” he responded.
Mr Kheng said the taskforce – which includes officials form the General Department of Administration, the National Police, the General Department of Immigration, and legal experts – is advising provincial authorities on how to best reduce crime.
“I have not ordered them to be there permanently and they are just going to stay in the province to assess the situation,” Mr Kheng said. “They will provide ideas on what needs to be done to reduce crime.”
“If there are some problems that the provincial authorities cannot solve, they must report the matter to the ministry,” he added.
He added that the province also has environmental and land conflict problems due to an increase in investment there which has driven up land prices.
According to numbers from the provincial tourism department, Chinese tourists top the list of visitors to Preah Sihanouk by nationality. During the first nine months of the year, 130,644 Chinese nationals visited the province, a 38.5 percent hike. China is followed by Vietnam (28,787 visitors), England (25,397), Russia (25,722) and France (23,417).