Chi­nese dreams


Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - – Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Cheng Sokhorng

Why Cam­bo­dia’s gov­ern­ment is court­ing record numbers of

Chi­nese tourists

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh has just opened its doors for the day and Chi­nese tourists are al­ready ar­riv­ing by the bus­load, sport­ing bum­bags and armed with ex­pen­sive cam­era equip­ment as they queue for the first tour of the morn­ing.

In Cam­bo­dia, these groups, like the many that will fol­low it, are in­dica­tive of the chang­ing face of an evolv­ing in­dus­try. Tourism is a key driver of Cam­bo­dia's econ­omy, con­tribut­ing ap­prox­i­mately one quar­ter of GDP last year, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the World Travel and Tourism Coun­cil.

Once a des­ti­na­tion pop­u­lar with ad­ven­tur­ous Western visi­tors, when Cam­bo­dia's gov­ern­ment looks ahead nowa­days its fo­cus is in­creas­ingly placed on one na­tion: China.

Whereas many Euro­peans are tight­en­ing their belts when it comes to spend­ing, China has mil­lions of peo­ple who, for the first time, have the money and de­sire to get out and see the world. Last year, China over­took Viet­nam to be­come the num­ber one source of visi­tors to the King­dom. And given its close re­la­tions with Beijing, Cam­bo­dia is in a prime po­si­tion to cash in.

Ac­cord­ing to Cam­bo­dia's Min­istry of Tourism, the coun­try wel­comed close to 830,000 Chi­nese visi­tors in 2016 alone, up al­most 20% from the pre­vi­ous year and al­most half­way to the gov­ern­ment's goal of at­tract­ing two mil­lion Chi­nese tourists an­nu­ally by 2020. Fig­ures from the China Out­bound Tourism Re­search In­sti­tute (Cotri), an in­de­pen­dent re­search or­gan­i­sa­tion based in Ham­burg, es­ti­mate that about 270,000 Chi­nese tourists vis­ited Cam­bo­dia in the first quar­ter of 2017, putting it on track to top a mil­lion this year.

Men Phearom, di­rec­tor of plan­ning at the Min­istry of Tourism, said that the

gov­ern­ment had im­ple­mented a pol­icy of pro­mot­ing mainly Chi­nese visi­tors as part of a wider eco­nomic strat­egy with Beijing.

“Through the strong re­la­tion­ship of both coun­tries, it brings to­gether the Chi­nese in­vestors and Chi­nese tourists in Cam­bo­dia.” he said. “So we have to catch this op­por­tu­nity to at­tract more tourists and tourism in­vest­ment.”

All signs point to a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in tourist traf­fic com­ing into the coun­try, but all visi­tors are not equal when it comes to the money and time they spend, and adapt­ing to a Chi­nese-driven mar­ket could mean ma­jor changes to an in­dus­try that has been largely built around the de­mands of visi­tors from the West.

“As a hote­lier I will of course be happy to see the over­all numbers [of tourists] go up,” said Pok Ratha Ming, se­nior sales man­ager at the Phnom Penh Ho­tel, a pop­u­lar spot for Chi­nese visi­tors. He does have reser­va­tions, though. “Chi­nese and Euro­pean tourists are dif­fer­ent,” ex­plained Ming. “The Chi­nese come to Cam­bo­dia for four days. They stay in Angkor Wat for three days and Phnom Penh for maybe one. The Euro­peans spend longer and spend more.”

Wolf­gang Ge­org Arlt, the di­rec­tor of Cotri, said that de­spite the huge fig­ures in­volved, a surge in Chi­nese tourists needs to be man­aged care­fully.

“The Chi­nese are the big­gest source of the growth of global tourism fig­ures, but this does have neg­a­tive ef­fects,” said Arlt, cit­ing the is­land of Palau in the western Pa­cific ocean as an ex­am­ple.

Known as a diver's par­adise, the is­land was un­til re­cently a hotspot for Amer­i­can, Aus­tralian and Euro­pean div­ing en­thu­si­asts. Then the “whole at­mos­phere changed”, said Arlt, when Chi­nese tourists started to ar­rive en masse, thanks to cheap deals on char­tered flight pack­age tours.

“The divers put… money into the lo­cal econ­omy,” said Arlt. “Chi­nese tourists pay money to Chi­nese tour op­er­a­tors.” If the tourist dol­lars are, as of­ten hap­pens, also fun­nelled into Chi­nese-owned ho­tels and sou­venir shops, this of­ten min­imises the ben­e­fits to the lo­cal econ­omy while si­mul­ta­ne­ously mak­ing the des­ti­na­tion less at­trac­tive to visi­tors from other coun­tries, who no longer feel catered for.

“So all of this is not re­ally ben­e­fit­ting the lo­cal Palau peo­ple. They get this big group of tourists who are ac­tu­ally en­dan­ger­ing the tra­di­tional cus­tomer base,” said Arlt. “I used to be asked how to get more Chi­nese tourists. Now I'm asked: ‘How do we get bet­ter Chi­nese tourists?'”

In Phnom Penh, as in Palau, lo­cal traders say that money from Chi­nese tourists tends to by­pass them.

“We get very lit­tle money from Chi­nese cus­tomers,” said Pheap, a mo­tor­bike-taxi driver based out­side the cap­i­tal's gleam­ing Royal Palace. “It makes us sad, be­cause we see big buses of Chi­nese tourists come who have a lot of money and we don't see any of it.”

Nearby, an­other driver, named Sot­hear, took a break from teas­ing his friends by steal­ing their flip-flops to lament the drop off in visi­tors from the West.

“Most peo­ple we see com­ing to the palace are Chi­nese and Viet­namese. Five years ago it was all Euro­peans and Aus­tralians,” he said. “Now we have about 40% less Euro­peans than be­fore. I don't care what na­tion­al­ity, we will take any­one, but we don't re­ally get money from the Chi­nese tourists. They come mostly on a bus.”

While eco­nomic ben­e­fits of­ten fail to trickle down to tuk tuks and mo­tor­bike driv­ers, op­por­tu­ni­ties are open­ing up else­where. A taxi driver based out­side Na­gaWorld casino in Phnom Penh, who gave his name only as ‘Mr Black'. “Many peo­ple worry that China is tak­ing over our coun­try, but we are happy be­cause it is more cus­tomers,” he said. “Most of our cus­tomers are Chi­nese or Western, but we make most money from Chi­nese… Chi­nese cus­tomers tip more than Euro­peans.”

How­ever, ‘Mr Black' did have one gripe: hav­ing to pay a large por­tion of his in­come to the Chi­nese-owned taxi firm he works for.

While the pivot to China is cur­rently a mixed bless­ing for the tourism sec­tor, what it will mean for the in­dus­try's fu­ture re­mains un­cer­tain and po­ten­tially fraught by overde­pen­dence on one source of tourists.

China has been known to use tourism as a soft power tac­tic in the past, with Beijing stop­ping tour groups from vis­it­ing Tai­wan and South Korea dur­ing periods of po­lit­i­cal ten­sion, slash­ing both coun­tries' tourism fig­ures by about 40% in the process.

The Philip­pines, on the other hand, has al­ready seen a rise in Chi­nese visi­tors since Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte made moves to

“We have to catch this op­por­tu­nity to at­tract more tourists and tourism in­vest­ment ”

warm re­la­tions with Beijing upon tak­ing of­fice last year.

“China uses out­flows of tourism as a tool to ei­ther curry favour or pu­n­ish foes. What we're see­ing in Cam­bo­dia at the mo­ment is the for­mer, with China now the coun­try's main source of tourists,” said Miguel Chanco, re­gional an­a­lyst for the Econ­o­mist In­tel­li­gence Unit. “Out­bound travel from China is strongly in­flu­enced by po­lit­i­cal fac­tors, as Beijing can throw up in­for­mal bu­reau­cratic ob­sta­cles that im­pede vis­its by its cit­i­zens to na­tions that are out of favour.”

With Cam­bo­dia very much in China's good graces now and for the fore­see­able fu­ture, it would ap­pear wise to use this mo­men­tum to in­vest in other ar­eas of the tourism in­dus­try.

The UN named 2017 the in­ter­na­tional year of sus­tain­able tourism, with the im­pact of tourism around the world be­com­ing a grow­ing con­cern for trav­ellers and des­ti­na­tions. China is not a mar­ket nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with

sus­tain­abil­ity but, ac­cord­ing to Arlt, eco­tourism could prove to be a huge draw for Chi­nese visi­tors.

“If you go to China, you can do ev­ery­thing ex­cept breathe,” he said. “If you live in Shanghai, kids will prob­a­bly never see a goat or sheep ex­cept on their plate. They will al­most cer­tainly never have seen the Milky Way… But in Cam­bo­dia, af­ter cul­ture, na­ture is the draw for Chi­nese tourists.”

In ad­di­tion to its ef­forts to en­tice Chi­nese visi­tors, the Cam­bo­dian gov­ern­ment has also taken steps to pro­mote eco-tourism and un­der­take projects that feed into do­mes­tic de­vel­op­ment. Plans laid out this year by tourism min­is­ter Thong Khon in­clude in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment, man­ag­ing so­cial or­der and the widen­ing and con­struc­tion of new roads. In

July, he also an­nounced the cre­ation of an in­ter-min­is­te­rial work­ing group with the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment to pro­mote eco-tourism, in­clud­ing the de­vel­op­ment of eco-tourism ‘zones' in ar­eas such as Prek Toal bird sanc­tu­ary and Kulen moun­tain, both of which are eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble from the tourist hub of Siem Reap.

With eco-tourism and re­spon­si­ble travel also chim­ing well with visi­tors from Europe, the US and Aus­tralia, such moves could even be a use­ful bridge be­tween East and West.

Carl Sladen, di­rec­tor of sales and mar­ket­ing at Phnom Penh's Raf­fles Ho­tel, a brand that has tra­di­tion­ally catered to Western visi­tors to Asia, said that the prop­erty has ex­pe­ri­enced an uptick in visi­tors from China who are keen to ex­pe­ri­ence the ho­tel's pres­tige and his­tory.

“It's a fine bal­anc­ing act of man­ag­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions of Chi­nese tourists and man­ag­ing the ef­fect on other guests,” he said, ex­plain­ing that the ho­tel goes to great lengths to ac­com­mo­date Chi­nese clien­tele. Both Cam­bo­dian branches of Raf­fles al­ready have Chi­nese-speak­ing front­line staff, and the ho­tel also pro­vides staff that lack these skills with ‘fre­quently asked ques­tions' cards in Chi­nese, which are given to in­quir­ing Chi­nese guests. Know­ing that lan­guage re­quire­ments will be ac­com­mo­dated is a must for the Chi­nese travel com­pa­nies book­ing the trips, he says.

From the gov­ern­ment's point of view, the chal­lenges that come with the surge in Chi­nese tour groups are well worth the ben­e­fits.

“We do un­der­stand that the in­flux of Chi­nese in­vestors can cause is­sues for small busi­nesses,” ex­plained the Min­istry of Tourism's Phearom. “But at the same time, this is pro­vid­ing jobs and rais­ing rev­enue through tax­a­tion. It gives a lot of ben­e­fits to the whole sec­tor that out­weigh the draw­backs.”

With the coun­try's gross na­tional in­come per capita still at a rel­a­tively low $1,070 per year, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank, it seems highly un­likely that, re­gard­less of the po­ten­tial pit­falls, the gov­ern­ment will hes­i­tate in pick­ing such low-hang­ing fruit

any time soon.

“It’s a fine bal­anc­ing act of man­ag­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions of Chi­nese tourists and man­ag­ing the ef­fect on other guests ”

Left to right: monks cross a street in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh; stu­dents hold up por­traits of Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and Cam­bo­dian King Norodom Si­ha­moni upon Xi's ar­rival in Phnom Penh in Oc­to­ber 2016; card ta­bles at Na­gaWorld...

Tourists take pho­to­graphs at Angkor Wat in 2007

The en­trance of Raf­fles Ho­tel in Phnom Penh

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