Cambodia’s tourism has been on an upward trajectory. Between January and August of 2018, Cambodia received more than 1.27 million visitors from China alone. This number marked a whopping 72% increase from 2017. With the influx of tourism, one would think Cambodians would be ecstatic. Unfortunately, not all are. Owners of local businesses are quite unhappy
with the influx of Chinese tourists.

For instance, most business owners based in Siem Reap are complaining. Some have gone on record saying that they have experienced major business slumps courtesy of increased tourism from China.

Channy Murphy, the proud owner of an Irish pub in Siem Reap says that her western client base has been dwindling over the past couple of years. The thing is, Cambodia used to receive tourists from the west in the early years of the 21st century. The UK, US, and France ranked top in their list of tourists. But in the recent past, there has been a shift. Tourists from China, Thailand, Vietnam, and South Korea are prevalent than those from these aforementioned western countries.

In 2018, the number of tourists who visited Cambodia totalled more than 5 million. The tourism industry contributed to about 32.4% of Cambodia’s GDP. The government plans on increasing this number to more than 12 million in the next 6 years.
But why is the influx of Chinese tourists in Cambodia a bad thing for local business?

Well, first, this influx was pre-planned. Hun Sen, Cambodian Prime Minister and Li Keqiang, the Chinese Premier held talks on how to increase the number of Chinese visiting Cambodia earlier on in the year. Channy Murphy shared her experience in the matter. She stated that Chinese tourists stick to a tour group. They rarely stray away from the group and the preplanned routes. In essence, they book everything from the hotel and are super organized. This reduces their need for straying away from the group during tours.

Her sentiments are backed by an ecologist Bill Laurance from James Cook University (Australia). Bill Laurance has researched and written on China’s ambitions in other countries. His findings show that Chinese tourists tend to guard themselves against the local businesses. From what I’ve learned, Chinese tourists favour and prefer Chinese run businesses. Be it hotels, tourist shops, tour businesses or tourist shops.’ Bill Laurance said. ‘When they are conducting business in other countries, the Chinese companies also prefer hiring fellow Chinese as employees rather than absorbing the locals.’

So eventually, instead of the money from the tourism benefiting Cambodians, it remains concentrated in the Chinese through their businesses.

How the Chinese Money Benefits Cambodia

Him Samnang has experienced the Chinese favouritism first hand. ‘Most Chinese will walk into Chinese restaurants and businesses just because they are run by one of their own. They rarely visit Cambodian run businesses.’

But according to the president of Cambodia Association of Travel agents, Chhay Sivlin, this preference is caused by government policies and language barriers. ‘This is real. Primarily because foreigners are allowed by the law to set up businesses in Cambodia. The result is an influx of Chinese owned businesses.’ Chhay said. ‘Language barrier also leads Chinese
tourists to prefer transacting with Chinese nationals.’ But even then, Chhay Sivlin maintained that these Chinese businesses were overall beneficial to the country.

‘While the influx of Chinese businesses and the tourism preference may pose a huge challenge to Cambodian business owners, it also leads to the creation of jobs for other Cambodians’. For instance, Sihanoukville, a city in the southern coast of Cambodia has experienced exponential growth courtesy of tourism, manufacturing and gambling industries set up by the Chinese.

However, this growth has caused other problems. The prices of Hotels in the city has shot through the roof, so much so that most Cambodians cannot afford to stay a night. Subsequently, local tourism in the areas has suffered a massive blow. The Cambodian government has formed a military unit dedicated to easing tension in the area between Chinese and Cambodia businesses.

After all, Hun Sen reminds Cambodians that China has been their trusted friend since 2006. ‘China has been our number one foreign investor,’ Hun Sen said. But of what benefit is this if most of the money is concentrated in the hands of the Chinese?
Laurance argued. Also, Chinese influence in Cambodia has been rising. This has stirred up deep-rooted anger in
most Cambodians. It’s not uncommon to hear Cambodians speak ill of the Chinese.

But be it as it may, Chinese tourism and investment remain to be the mainstream of income for Cambodia. It has contributed to the 7% annual GDP rise in the past decade. However, things are bound to change. Chhay Sarath, the deputy director Department of Tourism and investment for the Ministry of Tourism said that the Cambodian government was focussed on diversifying the tourism market. The Tourism Ministry is focussed on diversification. It will not depend on one market,’
Chhay Sarath said.