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Sea Town With a Reputation Seeks More Visitors

On her head, Bun Net carried a tray full of colorful bracelets, necklaces and other souvenirs. She walked along Ochheuteal beach in the coastal province of Preah Sihanouk on a recent day, selling her wares to European sunbathers under the noon sun.

“I’m not selling well there days, because there are fewer foreign tourists now, the 15-year-old vendor said, as other vendors her age gathered around. “Some vendors have sold nothing at all from morning until now,” she said.

The number of foreign visitors to this town are in decline. In the first four months of 2010, visits were down about 2 percent compared to the same period last year. The provincial tourism department estimates about 59,815 visits so far this year. In all of 2009, more than 120,000 people visited this province of eight sand beaches, an international airport and a national park, Ream.

Provincial tourism department director Som Chenda said the declining number of international tourists was due to the global economic crisis, but restaurant and guesthouse owners, along with organizations that work here, say the setback may also be due to a high number of thefts, bag snatchings and other crimes.

Such encounters have given Preah Sihanouk, or Sihanoukville, a reputation. Authorities are now battling that reputation, as they seek to increase the number of tourists coming here, rather than visiting the temples of Angkor Wat and leaving the country.

Thom Sor, a manager at the 55 Restaurant on Ochheuteal, said some foreigners visit just one time.

“Some are afraid to return, as they’ve lost their wallets to child thieves on the beach,” he told VOA Khmer last week. While they were swimming, “some lost their phones, clothes and even their flip-flops,” he said.

Foreign tourists stay in guesthouses like the GST, not far down the beach from 555 Restaurant. Guesthouse manager Meas Sam Ath said last year 100 people per day would check in; this year, the number is about half.

“Some guests complain about drive-by bag snatchings when they drive a motorcycle around, so they don’t want to come back,” he said.

Tourists like Jodie Hall, of Australian, say they are cautious when traveling around.

“I wouldn’t be around at night by myself,” she said. “I don’t take anything out that I don’t want to lose.”

City authorities are trying to address the problems and the reputation. Lonely Planet describes Sihanoukville as a town that is “not as dicey, security-wise, as its reputation of recent years may imply.” Problems like snatchings can occur in Phnom Penh, as well, according to the company’s travel website. There it also cautions against assaults and other violent incidents at the beaches, including one rape.

The city also has a reputation as a destination for sex tourists. A project officer for Action Pour Les Enfants said six child sex abuse cases were reported in the province from January to April. Last year, a total of eight were reported.

“We see child sex abuse in the streets and in the gardens at night, where there is little light,” the program officer, who gave his name as Den, said. “Recently, abuses have occurred in the quiet bushes, a new location chosen by perpetrators.”

Som Chenda, director of the provincial tourism department, said authorities have worked to lower crime by collecting young thieves from the beaches for reeducation and deploying policemen in the shadowy places where crimes often take place.

“In recent years, the problems have been better addressed,” he said in an interview last week. “We have paid more attention to strengthening our campaigns in educating tourism service operators, business managers and owners, and especially with local people—to join hands in dealing with these issues.”

The city wants to improve its existing beaches and some of the surrounding islands, he said. This too might help bring more visitors, he said.