Cambodia is a country whose most residents do not belong to the places where they have ended up. The Khmer Rouge regime’s wave of violence killed 1 in 5 of the country’s total population in less than four years. After the regime’s end most of the remaining locals moved towards the shore line whose beautiful beaches and ports until then had been almost empty. Within a decade they built new lives there and at the archipelago of 22 uninhabited islands. They were guaranteed a permanent right to stay until, after the government had already started grabbing parts of the main land, it moved to the shore as well. Every island was on sale to western private investors, who driven by the huge growth expectations of the country’s tourism industry, found an ideal partner in the prime minister who aimed on high end tourism.

Original article by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, The Guardian, Saturday April 26 2008

Essay by Daisy Modiano
Master in Tourism Destination Mangement student 2008/2009

Twenty years ago the beaches in the southern part of Cambodia were deserted, only to be gradually populated, after the end of the lethal regime, by the thousands of former mainland residents who had been evicted by their lands. Within 10 years they slowly learnt how to live by the water, building new lives in the undeveloped coasts and even moving to the nearby archipelago of uninhabited islands creating new villages and farming the land. By 2006 the communities were fully formed, with schools, political representation and recognition by the government guaranteeing their permanent stay there. The state government had designated that area as public land, which could not be developed.

During the same period it was widely known that right after the new government was formed, there was an intense situation of land grabbing by political powers and rich businesses claiming the land that had been detained by Khmer Rouge. “… Cambodians used to say that the rich were eating the country”. Large parts of the city, the forests and fields had been snatched, but the coastline until then had remained untouched. Until 2006 when bulldozers suddenly entered “Village One”, a name that failed to capture the beauty of the scenery, and flattened it. No warning, no explanation was given to the people being evicted from their homes, for the second time. They heard that a hotel was planned there. By 2007 every island was up for sale, most of them already bought by foreigners, who already negotiated for mainland sites as well as the public beaches.

Cambodia, a country with a large dept to the international community, had suddenly become a land of opportunity for investors escaping the western financially crippled markets. The unexpected growth of tourism in Cambodia, along with the financial crisis in the west led more and more western investors to seek opportunities there for large profits. The situation in Cambodia is the most promising for them, than any other country of the East, since the ruling political party has literally put the country up for sale. It is the only country that gives permission for foreign investors to create completely foreign owned companies in Cambodia fully buying land and real estate, and not just being minority shareholders. The government also offers other incentives like tax waivers for foreign businessmen.

Cambodia’s reputation as an alternative, less developed tourism destination will apparently not last for long as the unspoiled nature and the simple, already troubled, local people will have to give way to new, foreign-interest, beach resorts and visitors from all over the world. In its attempt to compete with the neighbouring tourism destinations, like Thailand or Vietnam, supporting the country’s fragile economy, the Cambodian government‘s eagerness to open its market to foreign investment is understandable. But without proper planning, and without focusing on its internal well being and that of its’ residents, the country is running the risk of creating a chaotic, uncontrollable development which will eventually lead to the loss of its original character and depend solely on foreign investments.

As also mentioned in “Tourism Management Dynamics”, by Buhalis and Costa, in the Chapter Managing Globalization: In times of crisis or given more lucrative opportunities elsewhere, they (transnational corporations) may be quick to pull out”. This is a very possible future danger that Cambodia may face, if the country’s focus doesn’t change towards a more sustainable planning enhanced by a more structured stakeholder approach in order to compete in this global environment. Considering the shortage of resources and the vast expansion of mass tourism, it is apparent that the interaction between global and local has negative effects (Tourism Management Dynamics). The tourists enjoying the beautiful beach and the luxurious resort facilities, will never see how the local people had to be thrown away from their houses, the government’s corruption and profit or how many coral reefs or natural, untouched forests had to be destroyed for this development to take place. It is always the government’s responsibility to ensure that there is a balance between the economic benefits of (tourism) development and the maintenance of its society’s welfare.