Dented Boat May Leave Gash in Tourist Trade

Carrying a cargo of well-paying foreign tourists, the Tonle Pan­daw, a colonial-era riverboat, drifted into Phnom Penh after a scenic cruise up the Mekong River from Vietnam last month.

As it docked under the guidance of a hired Cambodian pilot, the riverboat brushed against one of the commercial fast boats that ply the waters between Phnom Penh and the provinces, leaving a small dent in the fast boat’s outer deck. Though small, the damage would have large repercussions for Stefan Brenkan, the Tonle Pandaw’s operations manager. And those aboard the luxuriously-appointed Tonle Pandaw would soon find themselves surrounded by armed Interior Ministry policemen, forbidden to leave before Ly Nguon, the fast boat’s owner, collected a hefty compensation payout.

The bump between the two boats became a week-long affair of negotiations, intimidation and compromise.

“Simply blackmail” was how Brenkan described the compensation claim, which was first set at $8,000 and gradually dropped to $2,000. A Phnom Penh port official, speaking on condition of anonymity, put the damage to the fast boat at about $50 to $100.

There was no official assessment of the damage, but it was described in a statement signed by port officials as “a small dent of about 3 centimeters in diameter to the metal frame that vertically sur­rounds the [fast boat].” Pic­tures confirmed this description.

“Such incidents damage not only our company but also Cam­bodia’s tourist industry,” Brenkan said. “Our passengers have said they would complain, and we will have to compensate them.”

As worries grow about the future of the garment sector as the US quota system comes to an end, tourism has been earmarked as Cambodia’s economic cornerstone in coming years.

Tourism is already a $1 billion industry, second only to the

$1.6 billion garment industry. And after some difficulties in 2003, following the outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome, avian influenza, as well as the war in Iraq, tourism numbers have rallied and are on track to achieve a government goal of

1 million visitors this year.

But a slew of recent reports have also identified rampant corruption as one of the biggest ob­stacles in the way of Cam­bo­dia’s economic growth.

A recent assessment of corruption in Cambodia released by the US Agency for International Development noted that “the multinational business community has made clear its intention to stay away from Cambodia for a range of reasons, many linked to corruption.”

One of a two-boat fleet, the Tonle Pandaw is a western-owned vessel that makes the round-trip voyage from Mytho, Vietnam, to Siem Reap town every week.

Brenkan said his organization, The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, brings up to 500 high-end tourists a month into Cambodia aboard its two riverboats.“Our company is not just a minor tourism project, but beneficial to both the country’s industry and economy,” he wrote in an e-mail last month.

The fast boat incident was a clear-cut case of intimidation and extortion, Brenkan said. He said Ly Nguon would not agree to an independent investigation by the riverboat’s Singaporean insurance agent, even after Brenkan agreed to leave a conditional deposit of $2,000 with the port authority.

Brenkan eventually paid Ly Nguon $2,000 just so his boat could leave. His decision was based partly on a call he received from a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Tourism, who exhorted him to pay the money, he said.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive di­rector of the Cambodian De­fenders Project, said it is not necessarily against the law for Interior Ministry police to intervene in a civil case. Police can legally detain someone if there is evidence of “flagrant crime,” like property damage, he said.

But, he added, “I want to recommend that there is a law that says police cannot interfere in a civil case,” especially if the offending party is a well-known boat company that does not represent a flight risk. Otherwise, police get involved so they can collect a commission on the settlement, he said.

Ly Nguon downplayed the incident when contacted and merely said an agreement had been reached. He did not, however, feel the compensation was adequate.“We compromised so that the matter could be solved,” but, he added, $2,000 “is not enough to cover the cost…. For me, even if they had paid $50,000 it is still not enough.”

Brenkan suggested that the tenacity with which Ly Nguon pursued the claim may have been inspired by something other than monetary gain. Renovation of National Route 6 means fewer people are traveling to Siem Reap by way of the river and fast boats have felt the squeeze, he said.

Yang Van, director of the tourism industry department at the Ministry of Tourism, was a witness to the dispute. He said his ministry facilitated the talks.

“Our duty was to solve the matter and to let both continue in business,” he said. “They can solve the matter of compensation by themselves.”

For the Tonle Pandaw, the $2,000 payment was a drop in the Mekong when compared to pilot fees, border fees—official and under the table—and port fees, which Brenkan said are some of the highest in the world.

But these costs were part of normal business; an incident that left customers complaining was another issue.

When asked whether the future of his company in Cam­bo­dia would be effected by the incident, Brenkan replied with resignation.

“We are going to continue, of course. But we are trying to bring it to the public,” he said.

 

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