Gambling ban dents Sihanoukville’s fortunes

SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia, 23 January 2020: Hit by a ban on online gambling Sihanoukville’s once-prosperous casinos are dropping likes flies.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen halted online gambling provisionally last August following through with a permanent ban effective 1 January, to counter money laundering.

Online gambling bolstered the fortunes of bricks and mortar casinos across the country and according to local media represented up to 25% of all the tax revenue sourced from 136 casinos nationwide.

In Sihanoukville, the immediate fallout from the ban culled employment for 7,000 people who had migrated from factory and farm employment to work in the resort’s 75 casinos. Following the permanent ban, just 36 casinos remain in business.

A  booming coastal port blessed with more than 227 hotels according to  Booking.com, Sihanoukville is losing its economic momentum that was mainly driven by Chinese investments and cash flow.

Pessimistic comments on Facebook pages penned by Sihanoukville fans claim an invasion of Chinese tourists have taken over the city’s three popular beaches of Serendipity, Otres and Ochheuteal. In response,  tourists of other nationalities scurry to quieter island resorts.

Cambodia’s Pacific Asia Travel Association Chapter president Thourn Sinan appears to agree. He said in an interview late last year: “Although the number of other tourists visiting mainland Preah Sihanouk province has decreased due to the influx of Chinese nationals, tourists visiting the province’s islands has increased. Tourists have always enjoyed going to the seaside, but now the most attractive place for non-Chinese tourists in Preah Sihanouk province is the islands.”

TTR Weekly asked a reliable tour guide service in the town for a comment that got the terse response, “don’t believe everything you read” and “we cannot answer in a couple of sentences.”

Sihanoukville’s fairy tale ending has gone missing. Once a sleepy town blessed by the presence of three superb beaches just beyond the city limits, so-called over-tourism coupled with uncontrolled hotel expansion now threatens its future.

It’s evident in the proliferation of real estate advertisements. We counted four resorts on the mainland and islands for sale this month. 

One of them, the up-scale 27-villa Song Saa Resort, located a 45-minute ferry ride from the town’s port, is up for sale according to publicity released by JLL a global real estate agency.

The resort’s name that roughly translates into “Sweetheart’ occupies the two islands of Ouen and Bong linked by a rustic footbridge. Song Sa had all the hallmarks of a fairy tale in the making after investors from Hong Kong optimistically leased the two tiny islands for 99 years in 2007 and built an eco-lodge with villas.

The price for a luxury holiday break on the private twin islands according to its website will set you back around USD2,000 a night. Booking.com quotes a rate of THB41,137 during mid-February.

Of the 32 islands in Preah Sihanouk, the most popular ones are Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloen that have resorts ranging from budget to five stars.

Top-end resorts

Bangkok’s Asian Trails chairman, Luzi Matzig, has a stake in the luxury Royal Sands on Koh Rong island offering 67 up-scale villas with pools and direct access to Sok San beach. The ferry transfer from the Sihanoukville’s port to the resort takes 40 minutes. Booking.com quotes a rate of THB17,783 inclusive for an Ocean View Villa during mid-February.

Six Senses with 40 villas is located on Krabery Island, a 3 km ferry crossing (around 15 minutes) from the jetty at mainland Ream National park. The best Booking.com rate starts at THB32,677 a night for a stay mid-February

Alila Villas marketed through Hyatt is located on Russey Island, which is part of the Koh Rong archipelago. The 62-villa resort is a short 10-minute ferry crossing from the Ream commune jetty, 25 km from Sihanoukville town and 5 km from the airport. For a mid-February, stay, Booking.com quotes a rate of THB19,396 a night inclusive of tax and service.

From Bangkok, Thai AirAsia offers the only direct service to Sihanoukville four times a week on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Roundtrip fares start at THB4,315 for the one-hour and 15-minute flight. The transfer from the airport takes around 30 minutes to downtown Sihanoukville.

2 COMMENTS

  1. No wonder no one is staying at Song Saa resort or any of the other ones mentioned with those kind of prices. Who do they hope to attract? Rich millionaires who can afford to spend that much per night aren’t visiting Cambodia and if they are they certainly aren’t interested in it’s few beaches. Such visitors will go to St. Tropez, Key West, Tahiti, the Bahamas or maybe, southern Thailand. Cambodia is well off their radar. Perhaps if they charged something more reasonable like 5,000 Baht per night, they could attract a sizeable clientele. It makes no sense charging the same per night as many Cambodians earn in a year, it’s ridiculous.

    The Koh Rong islands always have been and should remain backpacker islands. Until the Chinese casino invasion, Sihanoukville was much like that. I’m pleased to hear that the online gambling ban has improved things a little in Sihanoukville, though 36 casinos is still a huge number, given that in Phnom Penh there is just 1 and 2 in Singapore. Perhaps eventually the government can further reduce the number of casinos to a more manageable number, clean up the waste and strictly control casino operations to reduce crime and create a place visitors might actually feel safe visiting. Sort of like a more low-key Cambodian Macau or Las Vegas, but with much more to offer than just casinos. High-quality entertainment, world class resorts, restaurants, dive centers, etc. that could really put Sihanoukville on the map for the right reasons.

    I suspect however due to the enormous corruption of local and national politicians and the greed of developers this won’t happen, not for a long, long time anyway.

  2. This article rather understates the appalling reality of Sihanoukville today. It is like a bomb site. New development has adversely affected every area. High rise hotels are being constructed next door to low level resorts. Beach shacks are being bulldozed. Roads have been dug up. There is dust and construction traffic everywhere.

    I cannot believe any tourists, Chinese or otherwise, would be happy staying there at the moment.

    The islands are still beautiful, but first impressions count and there are many reviews on booking.clm and TripAdvisor (including my own) that suggest bypassing this area of Cambodia for the next few years.

    SE Asia has many fine beaches and islands – why put up with the chaos here? I am desperately sorry for the local Cambodians whose livelihoods have been ruined. They have been misled by greedy developers and corrupt politicians.

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