PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Dirty streets cost the city dollars. Hotel managers say that unsightly piles of garbage have contributed to convention planners deciding to take their business elsewhere.
With Asean integration rapidly becoming a reality, Phnom Penh is poised to become a centrally located regional hub for business travelers. In 2013 alone, business travelers to Cambodia, largely to the capital, jumped by 47 percent over the previous year. But for visitors from Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok, Phnom Penh rates poorly because of uncollected garbage and street crime. For many Asians, trash collection is an urban problem that was wrestled under control decades ago.
“When company scouts come for inspections, they find nice hotels, easy visas, and friendly people,” said Charles-Henri Chevet, general manager for Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. “But when they see the condition of the city, with the garbage in the streets, it loses points.”
It’s tough to estimate the total economic impact of poor sanitation. In 2008, the World Bank published a study which estimated the total damage of poor sanitation to Cambodia stood at $448 million per year. This figure included garbage, sanitation, access to clean water and other issues, which create health costs and dampen tourism.
The Cambodian Hotel Association, citing a review of various studies by international organizations, estimates annual foregone annual tourist revenue at $74 million.
The city’s sole waste collection company, Cintri, leaves as much as 20 percent of garbage on the streets every day. The city generates 1,500 to 1,600 tons of trash daily, according to research by Royal Phnom Penh University.
The company’s efforts are stymied by poor traffic and infrastructure, high employee turnover rates and low margins. Researchers also blame the tendency of businesses and individuals to take out trash at irregular intervals and the scattering of garbage by carelessness, animals, and recyclers.
The problem gets worse during public holidays, said Bun Sonya, general manager of Royal Inn.
“There is more garbage on public holidays,” she complained. “It’s smelly and it looks bad. That can give a bad perception to tourists visiting.”
The Cambodia Hotel Association said its main concern is the lack of organized dumping areas managed by public authorities.
“Visitors and convention organizers may appreciate the modernization of dumping areas for non-hazardous solid waste, especially around market areas,” said CHA treasurer Arnaud Darc.
According to Jon Morales, a researcher with the Asia Foundation, most of the garbage piles in the central city are cleaned up daily. But they also reappear every day. By comparison, garbage piles in the outer, poorer areas can linger for days, creating health hazards for residents.
Big Potential Market
The last major international convention, PATA Travel Mart 2014 in Phnom Penh attracted 1,000 delegates from 60 countries for the tourism and travel fair as well as multiple conferences organized for the event.
The 2014 World Rice conference was another major event here. In February, Siem Reap hosted the joint UNWTO and Unesco World Conference on Tourism and Culture.
Phnom Penh has several luxury hotels, making it a potentially attractive option for such functions. But by failing to tackle its garbage issue, the municipality may be shooting itself in the foot.
“Last year, we lost three conventions,” said Mr. Chevet. “We believe that garbage was a factor, especially with people coming from Singapore.”
By Mr. Chevet’s estimate, each convention lost means a loss of about $200,000 or more. Conventions generally range from 40 to 300 people.
The Hotel Association brings the cleanliness issue up regularly with the ministries of Tourism and Environment.
Slower Tourism Growth
According to the Ministry of Tourism’s statistics for 2014, Phnom Penh International Airport saw a 9.7 percent increase in international tourism. Siem Reap International Airport saw a 14.8 percent increase.
Tourism is measured across four main areas in Cambodia – Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, coastal areas including Sihanoukville, and ecotourism. The fastest growth is now on the Coastal, according to Kong Sopheareak, director of the Statistics & Tourism Information department.
For foreign visitors, the capital risks becoming flyover country.In the last six months, two new airlines have joined Cambodia Angkor Air in offering direct flights between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
The composition of tourists also differs. Over 16 percent of Phnom Penh visits are business related, while only six percent of Siem Reap visits are for business.
Mr. Sopheareak said the Ministry of Tourism has yet to study the impact of waste on tourism in the capital. But hotel operators say that garbage, traffic, and personal safety concerns erode visitors’ interest in coming back.
Vin Spoann, an environmental researcher at the University of Phnom Penh, is studying the economic costs of the city’s solid waste problem.
In interviews, many tourists told him they prefer to stay on the Coast over Phnom Penh, citing garbage as one of their concerns. According to Mr. Spoann, tourists say they would be willing to pay more for businesses and services, if the city were cleaner.
Concerns about garbage decline among lower-income tourists. Royal Inn’s Ms. Sonya said while her tourists worry about garbage, they are more concerned about street crime and safety. She regularly asks district level authorities to increase police patrols in areas where her hotels are located.
“Recently, safety decreased a little bit,” she said.
Among high-income tourists and convention scouts, a separate issue may be their preference for areas with available outdoor activities, said Mr. Darc. As Phnom Penh turns increasingly into a concrete jungle, visitors may become more interested in ecotourism in Northeastern Cambodia.
“Because of the importance of the tourism sector for the development of Cambodia, it is of the interest of public authorities to be proactive in preserving the so-called ‘Green Gold’,” said Mr. Darc.
Efforts to Do Better
Policies on solid waste management are relatively new. Cambodia’s 2009-2013 national strategic development plan outlined a framework to reduce pollution. In March, the government outlined a plan to decentralize waste collection authority to provincial and municipal governments.
During a recent forum on Green Business, Environment Minister Say Samal stressed environmental preservation and a change of mindset, including towards solid waste management. The Phnom Penh University researchers agree, saying the public sector must create information campaigns and enforcement to cut littering.
The Tourism Ministry has created the “Clean City, Clean Resorts and Good Service” campaign, trying to link waste management with wellbeing. It established a committee to implement a plan to separate garbage and to clean up cities. Meanwhile, Phnom Penh’s municipality is reviewing Cintri’s contract and considering hiring additional companies.
Meanwhile, garbage still lines the streets of Phnom Penh, depressing tourism income and raising medical bills.