Over the past 15 years, Siem Reap has supersized into one of the world’s top tourist destinations and flooded the region with millions of dollars in cash from abroad.
But that money has mostly failed to reach workers living in the shadow of its Angkorian temples, locals say.
And with visits to the area falling slightly in the first half of 2016 after years of breakneck growth, there may be even fewer opportunities for the wealth generated by Cambodia’s third-largest industry to reach the residents who lack the education and connections to profit from it.
“In the midst of the tourism boom, local people’s livelihoods have not improved,” Nara Mao, a Cambodian educator and a doctoral student at Victoria University in Melbourne, contends in his 2015 thesis on the topic. The study is based on interviews with more than 100 residents of Siem Reap City and three surrounding communes.
Sok Sokun, director of the Ministry of Tourism’s planning department, acknowledged that the benefits of the industry had not been equally dispersed.
“There are a lot of developments in terms of tourism, but Siem Reap is one of the poorest provinces,” Mr. Sokun, who grew up in the province, said on Friday.
Most hotels and guesthouses “are not owned by local people,” he said, but rather by “people who migrate to the provinces or by foreign investors.”
Siem Reap residents “work for a low wage only because of low skill,” Mr. Sokun added, a situation he said he hoped would change as the ministry opens vocational training schools in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville in coming years.
Still, the government is banking on tourism to continue to drive economic growth, with officials aiming for 7 million visitors generating $5 billion in revenue and 1 million jobs nationwide by 2020.
Morm Rithy, president of the Cambodian Tourism and Service Workers’ Federation, said those dreams remain distant for most of his union’s members.
Hotels and guesthouses are hiring workers, he said this week, “but because of the low wages, some people are not interested and mostly go to find work in Thailand.”
Entry-level hospitality workers make $70 to $90 per month and regularly work 10- or 11-hour shifts at non-unionized workplaces, according to Mr. Rithy, a situation that cannot compete with the garment industry’s $140 monthly minimum wage.
“I do not believe the people’s wealth is increasing with the increasing number of tourists because everyday income is, more and more, going into the hands of big businessmen,” he said. “If the government does not make deep reforms in this industry, the money will go into the hands of the rich people and the poor will continue to be poor.”
Mr. Mao, who is also a vice dean at the Royal University of Agriculture in Phnom Penh, found that few of the people he spoke with over the course of his research were employed in the hospitality industry, lacking the foreign language skills or training to succeed there.
Using statistics from the Siem Reap provincial tourism and planning departments, he found that nearly 80 percent of those employed by hotels, guesthouses and restaurants had migrated from outside the province, a trend that is consistent with past studies in Botswana and Costa Rica.
However, Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents, disputed that figure, saying that 90 percent of the hotels in Siem Reap were owned by locals who had “little trouble finding local people with great hospitality skills.”
Tourism spending can have spillover benefits for transportation providers, farmers, craftsmen and retailers, according to the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization.
But many locals lack the savvy or means to tap into the inflow of dollars. Tuk-tuk drivers, Mr. Mao found, often secure only intermittent work—one man said he collected just three fares in a particularly bad month—and face increasing competition from those with better language skills and depend on unreliable connections with guesthouses for work.
Ung Thichenda, who has been a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap City for the past four years, said he worked with the Mad Monkey hostel to find passengers, a strategy that earned him $6 to $10 per day during the rainy season and $15 to $20 daily in the busier dry season.
“This year, it has been more difficult to earn money than last year because there are not as many guests,” the 28-year-old said this week.
“There are more tuk-tuks but fewer guests,” he said, predicting the number of visitors to “sharply decrease” when the Angkor Archaeological Park’s entrance fee increases in February.
Facing mounting debt, Mr. Thichenda said he was contemplating a career change. “If there are no guests next year, I will migrate to work in Thailand,” he said.
The tourism boom also has not provided significant benefits for the agricultural sector, which the provincial planning department says employed 35 percent of Siem Reap City dwellers in 2014, and the majority of residents in surrounding communes. Mr. Mao’s research found that most hotels and restaurants in Siem Reap sourced produce from other provinces or Vietnam because local products either could not be reliably obtained or did not match foreigners’ preferences.
Pe Proeun, a vegetable farmer from Siem Reap City’s Slakram commune, said tourism had little impact on his business except during busy periods.
“When there are more guests, my sales also increase,” he said.
But cheaper products from Vietnam are increasingly cutting into the profit margins on his long bean and cabbage crops, he said.
“I currently get only 2,000 to 2,500 riel per kilogram of long beans, but before I was selling it for 10,000 riel,” he said.
Mr. Sokun said the Tourism Ministry was working with other government bodies to ensure that hotels and restaurants—particularly upscale establishments—could source safe, reliable produce.
He said the ministry was also encouraging more community-based and ecotourism options in and around Siem Reap City that were more likely to impact the livelihoods of local people.
Meak Chanmonirom, the chief of Slakram’s Boeng Dounta village, said residents there were already seeing results in the form of greater employment, higher land prices and better business opportunities.
“I believe their livelihoods will improve more in the coming years,” she said.