Cambodia’s beach tourism clean-up comes at a high price for locals
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Cambodia’s beach tourism clean-up comes at a high price for locals

By Alexandra Demetrianova

TOURISM is an ever growing sector in Kingdom of Cambodia, which welcomes more and more foreign arrivals each season, reaching more than 4.5 million last year. The top number one tourist attraction is the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. But in recent years more tourists have been flowing to Cambodia’s coast. The Kingdom’s beaches are a new and attractive alternative to the more developed and much busier tourism hotspots on the coast of neighboring Thailand.

In the provincial Cambodian coastal town of Sihanoukville, hundreds of thousands of holidaygoers visit every year to enjoy nearby beaches. In recent years the private sector has taken advantage of that. Locals and foreign entrepreneurs alike have been fast developing businesses on Sihanoukville’s beaches – resorts with bungalows, restaurants, and bars with sunbeds.

This beach development has also brought more tourists to the coast. Otres beach, just 5 kilometres outside of Sihanoukville, is a great example of that. In the last 5 years the number of tourist businesses on Otres I and II has more than tripled, if not quadrupled, generating not only more revenue, but also income and jobs for the locals.

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One of the restaurants directly on the beach, on Otres II. By law, no building and no concrete are allowed within 100 metres of the sea. Pic: Alexandra Demetrianova.

However, this growth could soon be history. A recent government decree has ordered all beaches to be vacated this month. Legally, beaches are public in Cambodia and no development or buildings are allowed on the beachside. Bungalows, restaurants with kitchens and even sunbeds are to be vacated or bulldozed as ordered by local authorities. Hundreds of tourist businesses will therefore have to move away from the beach or close. How is this possible? Many are asking in shock in Sihanoukville, where the atmosphere is tense ever since the mid-February decree.

The original deadline for all beaches in Sihanoukville to be cleared was March 13. However, the Governer had been on a trip to China, so authorities will start clearing O’Chheuteal and Ariston beaches this week. As for the recuperation of lost investment and damages from the government decree, only a few local Cambodian families on O’Chheuteal beach, who have been on their land for more than 15 years, were paid. Most accepted the US$3,500 dollars compensation. The rest of the businesses on all other beaches will receive no money from the government.

A similar fate awaits Otres beach, if provincial authorities go ahead with demolition plans over there, too. For now, Otres I and II had been granted a halt to demolition until after Khmer New Year in mid-April, when tens of thousands of Cambodians flock to the coast to celebrate with their families. Government negotiations with committee of Otres business owners are underway, with no clear signs of agreement or compromise.

“We made this beach, we brought the tourism.”

Until a few years ago, Cambodia’s coast had been largely undeveloped, with many pristine beaches and most islands protected by national parks status. Otres beach used to be vacant, a no man’s land, with only a few guesthouses and restaurants for the handful of travelers and tourists, who heard of its beauty. To this day, Otres ranks in the top 100 most beautiful beaches in Asia.

Michael, from New Zealand, who owns Otres Beach Club is one of many foreign investors, who was drawn to the beauty of the beach and built a business on Otres II. He is clearly not satisfied with losing his investment of tens of thousands of dollars. His restaurant, with sunbeds and rental of catamarans and kayaks, will perish very soon, if the government holds to its decision. “We fixed the beach, made it clean and beautiful and now they take it from us. We created the tourism here,” Michaels says.

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Pic: Alexandra Demetrianova.

One thing is investors losing their money and businesses, the other is to undermine financial security of local Cambodians – whether owners or employees. “They will have to explain to their own people why thousands of jobs will be cut,” Michael says.

A waitress from Otres Beach Club SreyMun expressed worries about her own future. OCB is one of the businesses that will need to close down completely as they don’t rent more land behind the road on Otres beach. “I don’t know what I will do when this is over. I soon will have no job. Many people will be jobless, this is what everyone is thinking,” she says.

Otres Beach Club is one of many businesses located on Sihanoukville’s beaches that have petitioned Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office to reconsider the decree. That gives little hope though to SreyMun and others like her, who depend on beach tourism for their income – waiters, cooks, cleaning staff and bartenders, managers. “We just have to wait and see,” says SreyMun.

Government determined to make beaches public

Many beaches in Sihanoukville have seen robust tourism development in recent years with resorts, restaurants and bars and even casinos popping up on the beachfront. The rise of Otres beach has been one of the most lucrative ones and land for (de facto illegal) lease from Cambodian patrons to foreign entrepreneurs has more than doubled in the last three years. Bigger and more financially ambitious projects have been built recently, some only to find out that they will have to move from the beach and forget their proceeding projects in tens of thousands of dollars.

Despite the number of tourists and jobs this brought to Sihanoukville, provincial government is determined to comply by law and get tourism under control in the city. Preah Sihanouk provincial governor Yon Min cited environmental concerns as the motivation behind the move to make the legally public beaches free of private investment, which is de facto conducted on illegally rented state land.

“All vendors in these areas must demolish their places of business on these public state beaches. Provincial authorities will take action to clear them by ourselves and will not be responsible for any property destroyed,” Governor’s statement said. “The National Committee for Cambodia Bay Management and Development wants to develop the beaches and wants to improve and take care of the environment,” it added.

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Most restaurants and resorts on Otres are located directly on the beach. Pic: Alexandra Demetrianova.

In the latest development, Otres beach got an exemption from the execution of the decree postponed until after Khmer New Year next month. Ochheuteal Beach will still be cleared, but Otres and Damnak Sdech beaches will be left to operate.

Provincial Governor Mr. Min however refuses to back down from the decree and blames the affected businesses for ignoring authorities in the past.

“The authorities have tried to prevent them [from building] for a long time, but they just keep on building,” the governor said. “Now the government wants to im­ple­ment this measure to make the beaches nice. We have to do it and ask them to move.”

The buildings on the beach – bungalows, restaurants, kitchens – they are all too close to the sea, the Governor said and are also in danger from the tide. “The construction should be more than 100 meters away. In fact, when the tide is high, it often touches the buildings,” he said.

Regarding monetary compensation most businesses demand for moving, the provincial government sent a clear message – they are occupying state land and they never paid taxes for that privilege. Only the few families from O’Cheteul beach, who have been proved to be living on their land for more than 15 years, will be paid compensation.

“We need jobs” – locals blame corruption

Tam is a 21-year-old woman who has grown up on Otres I and seen all the development of the tourism sector there. Her mother is one of the “massage ladies”, as they are known around here. Local Cambodian women from nearby villages offering massage, manicure, pedicure; they also make and sell bracelets. More tourists coming to Otres meant better business for them in recent years. If Otres beach businesses will have to move away, Tam and her mother fear for their own fate.

“I feel sad for the owners of businesses on the beach. It also means less business for us. I’ve been working here with my Mom for more almost ten years, ever since I was thirteen. If everyone closes down, there won’t be people wanting a massage, because there will be less customers on the beach,” she says.

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Many Cambodian women depend on beach tourism for their income, offering massage, manicure, pedicure and jewelry. Pic: Alexandra Demetrianova.

Tam and her mother are one of hundreds to thousands of Cambodian workers, who are to be affected by the government policy of public beaches. Tuk-tuk and motto taxi drivers, staff in resorts and restaurants. Beach tourism is their “rice-winner”. “Now in the season we can earn just about enough to get through the low season,” says Tam.

Tam is also concerned for the slum village just off Otres I. This community had once been evicted by the government, and later settled near the beach in slum houses. They live in very poor conditions, but according to Tam and other locals, Otres beach tourism has benefited the slum village as well. The families sell gasoline, water and cigarettes, fresh coconuts, there is a motorbike repair shop and tourists like to come here to buy goods and services from locals.

“Many people from the village work on Otres, they are tuk-tuk drivers or are employed as staff on the beach. One of my friends lives in the slum village and she has found a very good job on the beach. Her family has been doing very well since then,” says Tam.

Deputy provincial governor Chhin Seng Nguon said authorities had considered the economic impact on locals—and decided that the environment took priority. “The National Committee had concerns about them losing their businesses or jobs,” he said. “But this will have big advantages for everyone in the country.”

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Otres beach – local and foreign tourism can be two very different things. Pic: Alexandra Demetrianova.

Mr. Ouk, who used to own a beach bungalow resort and restaurant The Castaways and now runs a travel agency, is also worried for his future and many locals like himself, who make a living from beach tourism. His agency is located on the beach side of the road and might have to move as well. “I hope I can stay here and keep this small business,” he says.

According to Mr. Ouk, it’s all about corruption on Sihanoukville’s beaches. The crackdown comes after years of turning a blind eye by local authorities. “The rules and regulations about beach development and building are in place, they are there. It’s about law enforcement. The officials would come… take money into their pockets if something wasn’t according to the rules.”

Other people confirm this inconsistency in beach and tourism management in Sihanoukville has been going on for many years. Longtime resident of the city and frequent beach-goer Mr. Georg from Germany said: “Over the years they would go around the original law of no development on the beach and allow more and more things. First they said, no building on the beach. Then they allowed restaurants, but no bungalows. Now they want to clear everything off.”

Michael from Otres Beach Club is open about what he thinks Sihanoukville government’s plans are. “Eventually they will sell this beach.” Rumors across the city suggest that Independence beach has already been sold to a big investor from Asia. “Sold” can be understood also in terms of exceptionally long rental deals up to 99 years.

Mr. Ouk also thinks that the plan of the city officials is to close a lucrative deal with a big investor.

“Now that tourism development is getting bigger, they (the government) want to be in control of it, in power to sell it or lease it off to big investors. It’s all about money.”

But local authorities are reluctant to make their long-term plans for development of Sihanooukville’s beaches public.

“The provincial authorities do not know what will happen after those businesses have gone and whether there will be construction of new hotels. That will be the government’s decision after they decide how many meters from the sea they can build.”

Sihanoukville Tourism Association vice president Douglas McColl says that what is happening on the province’s beaches had national ramifications and deserved a policy driven by Phnom Penh. He also called for greater clarity and transparency in the development process.

Changing forces and regaining control of the coast

The question marks over why provincial government has ordered such a radical clean-up of the city’s beaches are still hanging in the air in Sihanoukville, especially with the economic cost of it and the effect it will have on local employment.

Except for the de facto illegality of all beach businesses, government cites the environment and the will to make all beaches in the country public, as they should be. A clear example of what it should look like, is the vacant stretch between Otres I and II, where beach is empty. It is very popular, especially among locals. Cambodians prefer a different kind of beach tourism. They come in their own cars and motorbikes, bring their own food and drinks and enjoy the vacant beach. Tourist businesses are popular among foreign tourists, who look for certain kinds of services – accommodation, food, sunbeds and massages. If the beach is full of restaurants and resorts, public has nowhere to go unless they are ready to pay for on-beach services.

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Cambodians prefer a different kind of beach tourism on a vacant beach with their own food and drinks. Pic: Alexandra Demetrianova.

But the stretch between Otres I and II shows many challenges of the ambition for public beaches in Cambodia. There are no bins and trash is thrown behind the road, where huge piles of garbage can be seen from the main road to Otres. There are no toilets, and very few trees providing shade.

An anonymous source from Sihanoukville’s police force told Asian Correspondent that the real impetus behind the clean-up is the environment. Apparently, provincial government has received a large donation from an international organization or donor (unspecified) for beach conservation. Although we have not been able to confirm this information with local authorities, police source suggests the donation is up to US$10 million.

Sihanoukville has seen changes in provincial leadership recently, which might be another reason behind the tighter controls on beach tourism.

In August last year, Sihanoukville governer was removed from his post. Chin Sarin had been moved to another position at Interior Ministry. Though no special reason was given for this move, four months earlier, Sihanoukville’s police chief had been sacked. This was due to criticism that he had been sleeping on the job as a violent crime wave swept through the seaside tourist hub.

The coastal city and port was also hit by power struggle between two Russian businessmen, locally known as “the Russian mafia”. The conflict was concentrated mostly around Russian organized festival “Kazantip” – a massive rave party – that was to be organized on one of the islands off the coast of Sihanoukville (but later got shot down by authorities and the army citing cultural inappropriation). A series of shootings, stabbings and explosions rocked the normally calm town and the end was dire for both of the power hungry Russians – one spent months in prison and the other was extradited back to Russia.

“The situation is normal, even security, safety and public order,” the authorities claimed later. “It is getting better and better. Every day, we are strengthening and updating our efforts to prevent criminal offenses, drugs and the issues with foreigners.”

Around the same time as Sihanoukville’s governor and police chief were sacked, Preah Sihanouk provincial governer Chhit Sokhon retired. The movement of three key figures in the leadership of one of the economic, tourist and logistic centers of the country, suggests that the government aims to have deeper and wider control over what happens in Sihanoukville. Apart from beach tourism, the city is at the center of Cambodia’s industrial expansion and plans to develop the biggest port in the country.

Under a new, regulated economy, the face of beach tourism in Cambodia is set to change forever. The coastline is rather small and ambitions to develop a sector similar to neighboring Thailand are high. In Cambodia, land-grabbing is a familiar phenomenon for many communities in various parts of the country, only in this case, the law is on government’s side. What will it mean for the local economy and thousands of jobs remains to be seen.