Koh Kong may be without the spectacular temples or much-improved tourist infrastructure of other areas of Cambodia, but officials say they are counting on tourism to develop the southwestern province.
Tourists are expected to increasingly taking advantage of the eco-tourism opportunities the province’s natural beauty provides, while officials are also anticipating a US$5 billion large-scale Chinese tourism development now under way, according to Koh Kong Deputy Governor Sun Dara.
However, visitors to Koh Kong – which shares a border and economic ties to Thailand – have dwindled in recent months, with officials blaming reasons such as violent clashes between Thailand and Cambodia in Preah Vihear province last month.
Koh Kong Tourism Department statistics provided to The Post show 2,076 tourists – including 97 foreigners – stayed in the province’s hotels and guesthouses in February 2011.
In the same month last year, the province saw 10,619 tourists, including 852 foreigners – representing an 80.4 percent year on year decrease, the statistics show.
One notable decline was in the number of Thais visiting the Cambodian province.
Seven Thai tourists stayed in Koh Kong province in February 2011, from 141 Thai visitors in the same month in 2010, according to statistics from the Koh Kong Tourism Department.
“It’s been so quiet since the border clash,” said Kong Ratana, Deputy Chief of Cambodian Immigration Police at the Cham Yeam crossing between Koh Kong and Thailand’s Trat province.
“We’re seeing only 30 to 40 foreign tourists entering Cambodia each day,” he said. “It’s due to safety concerns set off by all the political tension – but it has not affected trade between the two countries.”
Some government officials said unofficial fees collected at the border were also keeping tourists away from the province’s seven hotels and 19 guesthouses.
Koh Kong Tourism Department Director Bun Beav said reducing fees and hassles at the border would increase the number of tourists.
Eco-tourism also offers strong potential to further local tourism, he said, because it plays to the province’s strengths – its natural beauty.
“I am hopeful tourists will increase again. The province has a lot of areas tourists can visit,” he said.
Janet Newman, owner of Koh Kong province’s Rainbow Lodge, which lies in a rural setting near Tatai village, agreed it was a hassle crossing the border, with officials routinely demanding 1,200 baht (US$39.68) for a tourist visa, when the official price was $20.
“It’s a big problem,” she said. “The first experience [for tourists] in Cambodia is crossing that border.”
She said the province was doing well in promoting eco-tourism and was seeing an increase particularly of Cambodian tourists to the area, but added the province ought to take a more sustainable approach to development to ensure the long-term viability of eco-tourism.
“There are a lot of things being allowed to be done that are very anti-ecotourism,” she said.
Large sand dredging operations on provincial rivers were of major concern to Rainbow Lodge, causing pollution and dirtying the river, she said, though added Ministry of the Environment had to some extent helped mitigate the concerns over noise pollution.
Tourism – particularly eco-tourism – is expected to play a central role in Koh Kong’s development, along with sectors such as mining and energy.
Work on the $540 million, 246-megawatt Stung Tatai hydroelectric dam began in January.
At the groundbreaking, Prime Minister Hun Sen described Koh Kong as “a battery province” that could help the Kingdom to satisfy its rising energy needs.
Some officials have downplayed any potential conflict between eco-tourism and environmentally damaging development. Sun Dara claimed the province’s eco-tourism plans had not been affected by wider economic development, which was necessary to improve the lives of its residents.
“Most Koh Kong residents are fishermen, while a few sell goods at the market,” he said.
Some local hoteliers are also hopeful of the future.
Chim Sokheng, administration officer at Koh Kong City hotel, said tourist arrivals had been on the upswing until the February clashes.
While Deputy Governor Sun Dara said there were large tourism developments underway in the province, in addition to eco-tourism.
Chinese firm Union Development Group is building an announced $5 billion tourism development in the province’s Botum Sakor and Kiri Sakor districts.
The project is slated to eventually cover 36,000 hectares, and consist of five separate developments including an airport, a port, a golf course, and a large commercial area, according to Sun Dara.
“This is a major tourism development in Asia – it will be the second largest attraction for tourists to Cambodia after the Angkor Wat temples,” he claimed.
The company’s investment was approved in 2009 and is scheduled to take 25 years to develop the project, but Sun Dara said he doubted it would take so long.
“They have already built an office building in Kiri Sakor district and a port for transporting construction materials to develop the site, and they are preparing the infrastructure to build roads and residential buildings,” he said.
Still, some 20 families await compensation for their land, which was located on the development site, according to Kim Chit, Koh Kong Coordinator for rights group Licadho.
“The company is providing lower compensation than market prices demand,” Kim Chit said.