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A Cambodian man looks at Chinese Lunar New Year lanterns at a shop in Phnom Penh. Photo: AFP

‘They only go to Chinese shops’: why Cambodia’s influx of mainland tourists is causing tensions

  • More than 1.27 million Chinese tourists visited the country in the first eight months of 2018, a 72 per cent increase over the same period in 2017
  • But locals say Chinese-owned businesses are benefiting most from the surge
Logan Connor

More than 1.27 million Chinese tourists visited Cambodia in the first eight months of 2018, a 72 per cent increase on the same period in 2017. But not all local business owners are happy.

In Siem Reap, the tourism hub and launching point for trips to the famous Angkor Wat temple complex, some are quick to lament the shift towards a market based mostly on Chinese visitors.

The sun rises over the central stupa of Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap as hoards of tourists take photos. Photo: AFP

Channy Murphy, owner of Mad Murphy’s Irish Pub – a one-room bar situated not far from Siem Reap’s famous Pub Street – said she has seen her mostly Western clientele slowly disappear.

Throughout the early 2000s, Cambodia’s top markets for tourism were dominated by Western countries, with the US, France and the UK ranking near the top. Now, these nationalities have largely been supplanted by visitors from countries like South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and China.

Last year, Cambodia hosted upwards of 5 million tourists and the industry accounted for 32.4 per cent of the country’s GDP. It has plans to increase the number of visitors to 12 million by 2025.

China tips the scales away from the US in push for Cambodian influence

When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited the capital Phnom Penh last January, he and Prime Minister Hun Sen discussed how to get more Chinese tourists to visit Cambodia.

Murphy said that in her experience, Chinese tourists tend to stay in tour groups and rarely stray too far from the beaten path.

“They book from the hotel … everything is organised,” she said, “so they never walk out [from the tours].”

Bill Laurance, an ecologist at James Cook University in Australia who has written extensively about China’s ambitions abroad, agreed that Chinese tourists have a tendency to insulate themselves from local businesses.

A construction site at Diamond Island, or 'Koh Pich', a major Chinese funded development in Phnom Penh. Photo: Reuters
“In my experience Chinese tourists do show a strong tendency to favour Chinese-owned-and-run businesses, be they restaurants, hotels, tourist shops, or tour businesses,” he said. “When operating overseas, Chinese companies also prefer to hire Chinese nationals as employees whenever possible, rather than employing local residents.”

Instead of money from tourism filtering down to native Cambodians, it stays concentrated in the hands of Chinese-owned businesses, Laurance said.

How Chinese money is changing Sihanoukville – ‘No Cambodia left’

Him Samnang, a tour guide at Angkor Focus Travel in Siem Reap, said Chinese guests tend to stick to hotels and restaurants run by those of the same nationality.

“Most of them, they go to Chinese [businesses], because they have Chinese owners,” he said. “They don’t often go to Cambodian [businesses].”

Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents, attributed this favouring of Chinese-owned businesses to the language barrier and government policy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Photo: Kyodo

“This is true because of the fact that foreigners are by law able to own businesses in Cambodia, hence causing an influx of Chinese to invest in various businesses here,” she said. “Due to a language barrier as well, Chinese tourists have preferred to use Chinese-based services.”

Chhay maintained, however, that Chinese-run businesses produced a net positive for the country.

“While this can be seen as a big challenge for the local business owners, [it] also creates more job opportunities for other Cambodians.”

They rarely hesitate to use bribery and other incentives, and it is the wealthy elite that largely benefit from such tactics
Bill Laurance

Sihanoukville, a port city on the country’s southern coast, has seen massive growth in its manufacturing, tourism and gambling industries thanks to Chinese investment.

But this growth has caused tensions. Hotel prices have risen – some say out of the budget of most Cambodians – and the number of local visitors has dropped. The government has even put together a task force to help ease tensions between Cambodian and Chinese businesses.

As far back as 2006, Hun Sen was calling China his country’s “most trustworthy friend.”

But Laurance said that much of the money that China has brought stays concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite.

“Chinese corporations and financiers also tend to deal with high-level officials and decision-makers when operating overseas, typically in an effort to acquire what they want – be it minerals, oil, gas, land, or other natural resources,” he said.

“They rarely hesitate to use bribery and other incentives, and it is the wealthy elite that largely benefit from such tactics.”

The rise of Chinese influence has been fuelling a deep-seated resentment among many Cambodians towards their larger neighbour to the north. Living in Cambodia, it’s a common occurrence to hear locals speak ill of China, and stories abound in the local press of Chinese crimes and misbehaviour. Figures put out by Cambodia’s police earlier this year showed that out of the 378 foreigners arrested in the first half of 2018, 257 were Chinese.

A woman uses a Chinese national flag to protect herself from the sun as she listens to Prime Minister Hun Sen deliver a speech about a sky bridge funded by China. Photo: AP

Still, Chinese investment and tourism remain a massive source of income for Cambodia, a country that has seen roughly 7 per cent annual GDP growth over the past 10 years.

Chinese tourism cannot remain the primary source of income for long, however. Chhay Sarath, deputy director of the department of tourism investment for Cambodia’s tourism ministry, said that the government was intent on diversifying its tourism market.

Cambodia must come to terms with its dark past

“The Ministry of Tourism, they have diversified activity, not only depending on one market,” he said.

Chhay acknowledged the tensions between Chinese nationals and Cambodians in places like Sihanoukville, but said that the town was merely in the “development stage” when it came to Chinese investment.

Officials at the Ministry of Tourism have recently worked to court tourists from places like Thailand and Japan. But at the moment, China remains the largest cash cow for Cambodia’s tourism sector.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: surge in chinese tour groups benefits some