Business owners and local residents around Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak, the “backpacker” tourist center of Phnom Penh, have been hearing rumors for years that the municipality plans to develop the lakeside area.
This year, the rumors are more persistent than ever and the area’s budget restaurants, bars and guest houses are getting worried, said Heng Bun Long, owner of Same Same But Different guesthouse.
Recent visits by municipal officials to survey the lake area have only helped fuel those fears.
“Rumors [of development] this year [are] much stronger compared to other times,” Heng Bun Long said.
While municipal officials have not revealed details of the developments planned for the lake, nor when it would begin, their intent to revamp the area is clear.
“The municipality needs to develop that area,” Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said this week.
In a telephone interview on Sunday, Tourism Minister Lay Prohas said that tourism revenue from Boeng Kak is small compared to the money generated from large hotels.
“Boeng Kak is mostly backpackers. Naturally, we don’t expect a lot of money from backpackers,” he said. “Major hotels, most of [the] money [is] made there.”
He noted, however, that no statistics exist showing exactly how much money is generated by lake tourism.
On Thursday, Lay Prohas struck a more conciliatory note adding that whatever backpackers do contribute to the economy, they have a direct impact on the community.
“Although their money is not that big, their spending is done directly to the informal sector,” Lay Prohas said.
Industry and business experts agreed that the impact of backpackers’ dollars should not be underestimated.
Co-chair of the Tourism Working Group, Oliver Petit, said a study on backpackers was conducted in Australia about 10 years ago.
“They found two very important results,” he said. “The first is that the volume of revenue from backpackers was about $100 million…. The second thing they learned from the study is nearly 100 percent of the revenue generated by this segment was going straight to the local economy.” Brett Sciaroni, president of the International Business Club, said that in general, the more expensive hotels are mostly foreign owned, and therefore less money from those businesses stays in the country.
“If you go to high-end places there’s going to be far less trickle down than at the low end. At the low-end you have far more local ownership,” he said. “The amount of money may be less, but the percentage staying here is probably higher.”
The Ministry of Finance declined to comment, and the municipal planning department asked for a written request before answering any questions.
The chief of Srah Chak commune, where Boeng Kak is situated in Tuol Kok district, said commune officials held a meeting Wednesday with some 300 residents from Village 6, guesthouse owners and landlords to allay their fears about a forced eviction when development eventually begins.
“I promised them that no eviction would be made. I explained to them that our officials are working to measure the land and houses, list statistics and take pictures,” commune Chief Chhay Thirith said.
But Much Leakhena, who owns Guesthouse No 9, one of the largest establishments in the lake area, said she remains troubled. She rents the land on which her guesthouse sits, she said.
“I think the municipality will pay compensation, but they will pay the landlord, not me,” Much Leakhena said.
Except for the month after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the US, Much Leakhena said she has seen a steady increase in business over the years—so much so that she has expanded from 12 rooms to 25 rooms.
She has also opened a second guest house, No 9 Sister, to handle the overflow of people.
She said her businesses support her entire family in Kompong Cham province, and she employs 35 people, all of whom are relatives or friends from the provinces.
“I am really, really worried because I spend all my money on the business,” she said. “Every owner of the guest houses are worried around here.”