Cambodia, long a tourist pariah, has been drawing an increasing number of tourists to its temples and beaches. That means that the Cambodian economy, after decades of war and a lagging move toward industrialization, has finally begun to grow. The country’s economy has been bolstered with proceeds from Chinese investment, especially in the creation of gaming establishments near prime tourist destinations. However, Cambodians who have made their living in the tourist trade are worrying that tourists will spend all their time in the casinos and no time at the beaches, which may force their small businesses to close.
An Example of the Problem
Sihanoukville is a small beach town that is known for its pristine waters and white sand beaches on the Gulf of Thailand. Its charming shops have sold everything from snacks and cigarettes to curried squid and candied fruit, as well as beer and coconut juice, to beachgoers for decades.
The casinos, which are located near the beach, are booming, however. Thousands of Chinese gamblers (Cambodians are forbidden to gamble in the casinos by law) come into the casinos to gamble and take advantage of the throngs of women who are drawn to the high-rolling Chinese. People who used to work on the beach in the small businesses are now working in the casinos.
Researchers have noted that there are two motives at play in Cambodia. First, the Chinese government is trying to extend its influence in Asia by spending money in surrounding countries in Southeast Asia that are still struggling with high poverty rates. Second, China is looking for places for its people to gamble without all the money going to another country, such as the U.S.-owned casinos in Macau. Cambodia is desperate for foreign investment, without strings attached, which neither the United States nor Europe is willing to do. While all this sounds great for the Cambodian economy, small businesses are suffering.
Sihanoukville, named after the former king of Cambodia, represents the problems with Chinese investments in gambling within the country. In this beach town, the prime minister of Cambodia, who has been in power for more than three decades, has declared that Cambodia will continue to advance with the help of Chinese investment. So far, 30 casinos have been built in the country, with another 70 casinos under construction. That is a large number of casinos for a country one-quarter the size of Texas.
In addition to the huge numbers of Chinese entering Cambodia to gamble, and the decline in revenue for small businesses, the number of properties being constructed by the Chinese is driving Cambodians out of the real estate market. While the Chinese can afford the rising real estate prices for a beach condo, Cambodians can’t. Cambodians are also concerned about their culture being overwhelmed by the influx of Chinese tourists, who don’t seem to care about the local flavors and colors, and for whom the signs are all in Chinese. Cambodians are also concerned about the increase in crime, drugs, and sex trafficking that seems to have appeared overnight with the large amounts of cash coming into Cambodia from China.
Sihanoukville appears to be an example of large-scale business growth and prosperity, as well as the overwhelming problems that sudden growth and investments bring. If Cambodia wants to continue to be known as a tourist destination for Westerners, it must find a way to retain its small businesses while encouraging foreign investment. If Cambodia can figure out a way to do that, the country can become a mecca for gamers and tourists alike.
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