PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — As Buth Chhon loads his boat at the docks of Koh Tuoch beach in Sihanoukville, he carefully reviews the orders: fish, alcohol, meat, and vegetables, to be transported to hotels, guesthouses and villages on surrounding islands like Koh Rong.
The 45-year-old father of five used to make this trip daily, filling one of his two supply boats with garbage on the way back to the city, making use of the trip in both directions.
“But now I only do it two or three times per week,” he said, estimating that his income dropped to about 35% of pre-COVID times. “I can’t really say how much I lost in terms of money, but I just lost a lot.”
During the first year of the global pandemic, Sihanoukville’s tourist economy remained afloat thanks to the relatively limited spread of COVID-19 in the country. However, following outbreaks that began in February 2021, businesses here have seen a devastating drop in visitors.
As Cambodia’s neighbors experiment with island sandboxes — like Phuket in Thailand and Phu Quoc in Vietnam — this once bustling port, along with the islands a 45-minute speedboat ride away, are now home to largely shuttered guest houses and restaurants, and a trickle of domestic and expat tourism.
Now the question is whether this idyllic hub of Cambodia’s tourist economy, which seemed on an unstoppable upward trajectory just months ago, can rebound and thrive once again.
Cambodia’s tourism sector has expanded each year since 1995, jumping from hundreds of thousands annual visitors in the mid-1990s to 6.6 million in 2019, each spending an average of $800 during their stay. In 2018 and 2019, the tourism sector made up nearly 20% of the country’s entire gross national product.
The country’s largest tourist islands, Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanleum, off the coast of Sihanoukville, hosted about 266,000 tourists in 2019, 71% of which were international tourists, driving the province’s $36.6 million tourism economy.
But in 2020, the number of visitors to the islands was halved to about 130,000, and international tourism fell by 65%, according to the director of the Preah Sihanouk provincial tourism department, Taing Sochet Krisna. Tourism revenue dropped sharply, to just $16.6 million.
Sochet Krisna estimates that about 600 businesses closed across the province, including many coastal attractions, but he says 100 of them have reopened in the last three months with more turning their lights back on every day. Others have closed temporarily and are now planning soft re-openings.
There were not enough international visitors here. Our income entirely depends on international tourists.”
Sochet Krisna is hopeful that the area will make a speedy recovery, given the recent success of Cambodia’s vaccination campaign and a reduced quarantine — from 14 to seven days — for vaccinated travelers, depending on their country of origin. Nearly 82% of the country has reportedly received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, and over 77% fully vaccinated.
And although visitors are still required to pay a hefty $1,000 deposit for their quarantine, last week’s re-introduction of tourist e-visas on arrival to select countries has those dependent on tourists hopeful that Cambodia will reopen along with its neighbors.
“Since we are well-organized and many people in Sihanoukville are vaccinated, we have organized for the protection [against] the spread of COVID-19,” Sochet Krisna said, a nod to the ubiquitous QR codes required for entry to businesses and the alcohol mist over doorways to most enclosed spaces. “It’s become better for the business enterprises, they’re more open.”
Sihanoukville pitched a sandbox-style plan similar to Thailand’s Phuket — in which lower-risk travelers are allowed to roam the country freely after spending a certain amount of time quarantining in certain zones or resorts.
But the province can’t move forward without approval from the national government, and it hasn’t received permission from the ministries of health or tourism, Sochet Krisna said. And with Cambodia now reducing its quarantine mandate, the sandbox plan may be unnecessary.
Life on the Islands
Out on Krabey Island, the five-star luxury resort Six Senses closed abruptly in March 2020. Since then, their several planned soft openings have been unsuccessful, said a hotel staff member who asked to remain anonymous as he didn’t have permission to speak from the owner.
“The hotel planned to reopen a few times — October 2020, December 2020, and October 2021 — but we ended up delaying our plans,” they said, noting that they’d also received no government assistance. “There were not enough international visitors here. Our income entirely depends on international tourists.”
“I want to see the government welcome back the international tourists.”
Tourism operators on Cambodia’s 32 islands, which like Sihanoukville have seen unprecedented development over the past decade, say they were caught off guard by the pandemic. Businesses making the majority of their money from international guests were hit extra hard, they said.
“This is destroying our tourism development, tourism business owners, their employees…and local people who produce products to sell to tourists,” said Ho Vandy, secretary-general of Cambodia National Tourism Alliance.
And no area has been hit harder than Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanleum, along with the boat cruises and ferries that have lost more than 90% of their business in the past 20 months, Ho Vandy said.
But for others, there’s little to do but wait. Khmer Dive shop owner Robert Hughes, who says the last six months have generated virtually no income — he had six clients from March to August.
“There’s just generally been less people going for holiday activities, so there’s fewer who will walk past us and be interested in scuba diving,” he said.
Although the company has turned its focus to the domestic tourism market, Hughes said there’s still been hesitancy to travel, as people wait for things to improve with the pandemic.
“The main problem working on the island has been what I guess you’d call consumer confidence. We know of a lot of people that started their dive course but never actually took the last step to go to the islands,” he said.
The government has offered some help, according to Ho Vandy. Tourism sector workers were eligible to receive $39 a month to stay afloat, and tourism licenses were automatically extended for travel agents, tour guides, hotels, and other related services.
But many on the islands say they haven’t received any support despite their struggles, like mini-mart owner Mann Sokhonat. His shop on Koh Rong Sanleum opened about two years before the pandemic hit, bringing in up to $3,000 a month. But since February 2020, he says he’s lost over $100,000 between his mini-mart and guesthouse.
He says he doesn’t want to close, but there’s little he can do but wait. “It impacts my family and me financially as we don’t have other sources of income. I have to pay rents for my venues for both the mart and guest house, pay my children’s school fee and other [expenses],” Mann Sokhonat said.
“I want to see the government welcome back the international tourists,” he added.
Buth Chhon, the boat driver, hasn't been given a stipend either. He was heartened by the recent influx of tourists during the recent holidays (officials said 80,000 people visited the province over a long weekend). But the pandemic has made the seasoned sailor wary: nothing is guaranteed.
“Now it is a bit better, because it’s Pchum Ben holidays,” he said. “I don’t know what comes later. There could be less tourists again.”