siem reap city – Nineteen-year-old Suong Phalla lives just five km from the Royal Residence in Siem Reap’s city center. Her father left home last week to find work in neighboring Preah Vihear province, and her mother cooks at a nearby restaurant in Siem Reap commune.
With six other siblings in the family, Ms Phalla was asked by her parents to leave school at the age of 11 to sell rice cakes at the local market in order to earn some extra cash. Though 1.3 million foreigners visited Siem Reap last year to marvel at the world-famous Angkor temples, her livelihood is one that exists outside of Cambodia’s $1.8 billion tourism sector.
“There are some jobs here, but we are poorly educated and find it difficult to get a job,” she said, her feet and hair caked in dirt.
Of course, Cambodia’s tourism sector is responsible for the creation of tens of thousands of jobs in hospitality, agriculture and transportation. But those in the industry say large portions of the profits generated from tourism here do not filter down to local communities.
Between 6 and 10 percent of households in Siem Reap City, which has a population of about 173,000 people, still earn less than the daily national poverty rate of about $2.25 per family of five, according to 2010 data from the Ministry of Planning.
Christian de Boer, director of sales and marketing at Hotel de la Paix in Siem Reap, where rooms start at $195 per night and go up to $750, said that during the financial crisis in 2009 many hotels in Siem Reap had to put the interests of their shareholders before those of local staff.
“Almost by definition as a chain hotel, you cannot do that,” he said. “You cannot be responsible because your shareholders always take number one priority above locals, above anything else.”
“In good times, it’s very easy to be responsible but it all shows in bad times. And terminating local staff, not having long-term contracts is not a good thing,” he added.
Unlike some high-end hotels in Siem Reap, Mr de Boer said Hotel de la Paix had a number of projects to give back to the local community some of what it reaps.
The hotel is spending $44,000 on renovating a primary school that will reopen in April. It also works closely with two orphanages and donates bicycles, food and school uniforms to communities in the vicinity.
Mr de Boer said Hotel de la Paix was one of the few hotels in town that chose not to terminate workers’ contracts during the financial crisis. Instead, the hotel chose to cut costs elsewhere in its operations, for example in putting a halt on printing brochures.
“It is becoming trendy to have some kind of a fake community angle, but it also shines through very quickly,” Mr de Boer said.
Didier Lamoot, area general manager for Sofitel Hotels, which has luxury hotels in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and is owned by the international hotel group Accor, said that giving back to the local community was a central part of company operations.
He said that in Siem Reap alone the company has financed temple restoration and hired Apsara dancers from local orphanages. It also sponsors a local orphanage know as Les Enfants de la Riziere.
Those in the industry say that while tourism levels have gone up since the financial crisis in 2009, there has also been a shift toward the lower end of the market, meaning fewer jobs are being created than before.
Generally speaking, wealthier visitors spend more among local communities during trips to marketplaces and excursions into the countryside.
A walk through Siem Reap City will take one through areas bustling with foreign tourists, chic restaurants and luxury hotels. On the other side of the spectrum, visitors will come across stagnant waterways and impoverished families living in flimsy wooden shacks.
Soeung Kong, deputy director general for the Apsara Authority, which manages Siem Reap’s temples, said all revenues in government coffers made through tourism went directly into the national budget and that infrastructure projects such as roads and street lighting had been carried out using funds generated through the Apsara Authority.
“Millions of dollars from the Apsara Authority have been spent on development here,” he said. “Many people are employed and get benefits from the tourism sector.”
The Apsara Authority alone employs more than 3,000 people. But Mr Kong acknowledged that there was a large gap between those who run the show in Siem Reap City and those live just outside it.
“There are a lot of revenues flowing into the province when we look at one corner. But many luxury hotels are not owned by Cambodians and locals,” he said, adding that many products used by high-end establishments tended to be imported. “City dwellers are getting richer, while the poor in the countryside are barely able to feed their stomachs.”
Moreover, many tourists who arrive in Cambodia come from China—177,636 last year—and South Korea, 289,702 in the same period, who tend to bring very little to local communities. They often fly on their own national airlines, sleep in pre-booked hotels and eat at restaurants that serve up their own national dishes.
On National Road 6 leading into Siem Reap City, rows of Chinese restaurants receive large groups of Chinese tourists who eat Chinese food and arrive via Chinese-owned bus companies day and night.
“Those people form a very substantial part of the tourism base,” said Mr de Boer, adding that the amount of money that actually filters through to the local Khmer person is “not that much.”
Catherine Nop, human resources director at Artisans d’Angkor, an upscale handicraft business, said that while foreign businesses often repatriated as much profit as possible to foreign shareholders, other business models did exist.
Artisans d’Angkor, for example, is 20 percent owned by its 1,073 employees. (The rest is owned 50 percent by Societe Conncessionnaire des Aeroports, the national airport operator; and 30 percent by the Apsara Authority.)
The company pays an average of $150 per month to its workers, provides health insurance and has established a common fund into which each employee pays $1 every two months to cover emergency health care.
The company also hires all of its staff from Siem Reap province. But Artisans d’Angkor is one of very few companies in the area that actually produces anything.
“A part from tourism, Siem Reap is not a town that produces much,” Ms Nop said. “A part from a bit of rice, we import a lot.”
She added that although local training programs for locals wanting to find a job in the tourism sector do exist, many who are hired come from elsewhere in the country.
Luu Meng, president of the Cambodia Hotel Association, said that while there was still more to achieve, the tourism sector was responsible for creating about 20,000 jobs in the hotel sector alone.
“We are one of the biggest drivers of jobs for people who leave school,” he said, adding that tourism also created indirect income for many workers in the agriculture sector and for those working as guides and translators, for example.
For Prom Say, 26, the realities of poverty in Siem Reap have urged him to look outside of the tourism sector.
Last week, he built a small brick shelter in Siem Reap commune’s K’akray village where he sells CDs and fixes computers. No tourists ever come by, but he manages to pull in about $150 per month. He also trains eight students in computer repairs for $20 a month each.
“The kids have business ideas, but often their family don’t have enough capital to start the business,” he said. “Some families in this village are poor.”