siem reap city – The global economic crisis has filtered down to hotel workers in Cambodia’s tourism hub, where some luxury hotels have temporarily shut down and mandatory unpaid leave is now the norm, employees said this week.
Tourist arrivals to Siem Reap fell by more than 16 percent in the first quarter of 2009 compared to last year, according to statistics from the Ministry of Tourism, and the hospitality industry is feeling the pinch.
It’s common for fewer tourists to visit Cambodia between March and September, said Luu Meng, union president of the Cambodian Tourism and Service Workers Federation. “But this year is the worst year ever.”
Front office workers at some of Siem Reap city’s most prestigious hotels pointed to two examples of how bad the situation has become: the Allson Angkor and the Princess Angkor hotels have both closed their doors for the remainder of the low season.
At the Allson, receptionist Ouk Sereivath stood outside the entrance to redirect curious guests to other hotels.
“We are closed for renovations,” he told reporters.
However, no construction or repair work was underway Tuesday morning, and Mr Sereivath said that although the hotel closed at the beginning of May, he didn’t know when renovations would start or what they would entail.
“We’ve had very low occupancy also,” he said, estimating that only about 15 percent of the hotel’s rooms were filled before the hotel shut down.
The Allson will be closed for at least three months, during which time the approximately 80 staff members will be paid half of their salaries, Mr Sereivath said.
One person still holds the fort at the hotel’s booking department, though.
“If we get 600 rooms booked per month beginning in October, we can start up again,” Mr Sereivath added.
The front desk at the Princess Angkor was manned by Lau Kakvey, an accountant. He, too, said his hotel closed at the beginning of April for renovations.
“It’s mostly painting,” he explained. “We have been open since 2003, so it has been many years.”
Scaffolding was indeed in place on the building’s west wing, but no workers were seen Tuesday morning. If there were flaws in the yellow façade of the building, they weren’t obvious.
About 80 workers at the Princess are now without work, but they have been promised their jobs back when the hotel re-opens in October-if they haven’t already found new ones-Mr Kakvey said.
However, he was adamant that low occupancy was not to blame for the closure. “There is not much difference between this year and last year,” he said.
In many other hotels, low occupancy rates mean that staff members are taking unpaid leave or have been temporarily laid off.
At the Royal Angkor Resort, assistant front office manager Sok Sophea described the situation as “really bad.” He said that about 25 staff members out of a total workforce of 140 have been sent home indefinitely.
“We’re letting them rest at home, and when we need them, we will call,” he said.
But he added that there was a good chance they wouldn’t be needed, and said the laid-off staff would be smart to look for new jobs.
The remainder of the staff isn’t that much better off. Mr Sophea said that everyone else, from management on down to housekeeping, has been taking 15 days of unpaid leave for each of the last two months.
The loss of salary has been difficult. “We need to spend money every day, but we have only half the money,” he said. “Maybe soon, we will lose our jobs-me, too.”
Thy Sok Mony, front office manager at the Prince D’Angkor Hotel, said that only 56 rooms out of 222 are currently occupied, down from last year’s low-season average of 100.
The hotel’s 45 housekeepers are now taking 2 weeks of unpaid leave per month, he said, and that could soon spread to the other 133 staff members.
“I am worried about that,” Mr Mony said. “If the hotel business is good, we are good. If it is down, we are down.”
Dam Lymong, a receptionist at the Century Angkor Hotel, said that only 20 of the hotel’s 190 rooms were currently in use, compared to an average of about 80 in the 2008 low season.
“We’ve never seen it like this before. Last year, the low season never got this way,” he said.
Beginning this month, Mr Lymong said that he and most of the workers at the Century are taking one week of unpaid leave per month. He added that he’s thinking about looking for new work.
“I think it’s difficult to find a new job, because all the hotels are the same,” he said.
At the Angkor Village Resort and Spa, management is taking a different approach to the crisis. Room division manager Maung Maung Myo Thaung said that his company is trying to avoid any loss of jobs.
Instead, upper management will be taking extended unpaid leaves. He said that the general manager was about to leave for more than two months, and when he returns, Mr Myo Thaung said he will travel to his native Burma for two months.
“For me, I volunteer so my staff can keep their jobs. My salary can cover a lot of them.”
Last year at this time, the resort and its sister hotel, the Angkor Village, were operating with about 230 staff. This year, they’re carrying only 150, a difference that Mr Myo Thaung said is because the resort and hotel opted not to extend the contracts of temporary workers.
Soon, he added, “We might ask staff to go on unpaid leave for one or two days.
Mr Luu Meng, the union president, said he’s heard about workers losing jobs and taking unpaid leave, but did not have any figures for the total number of employees affected in the tourist town.
He added that the slump has hit high-class hotels the hardest, while guesthouses and one and two-star hotels seem to be surviving. In all, he estimated that three or four luxury hotels have shut down temporarily.
“Some hotels are taking this chance to upgrade their quality to attract customers in the coming high season,” Mr Meng said.
Ho Vandy, co-chairman of the government-private sector tourism working group, said Tuesday that the world economic crisis has exacerbated the industry’s usual rainy season lull.
He said that it only makes sense for some hotels to shut down and make improvements while things are quiet, but added that he is concerned about the effects this downturn could have on other industries. “If the tourism sector is not working, it will cause trouble for the other sectors. The tourism sector leads the other commercial sectors.”
Tourism Minister Thong Khon said that the government is concerned about Siem Reap’s hotel business.
“We know well about that, but we have planned together. The government and the private sector have a good partnership,” he said, adding that Cambodia’s strategy is to encourage tourism from other Asean member countries in lieu of South Korean and Japanese visitors, whose economies were particularly damaged by the economic crisis.
“We have planned to push intra-Asean tourism up by 7 percent,” Mr Khon said, noting the improved road connection between Poipet and Siem Reap. He also said that he has been talking to airlines about adding direct flights from Vietnam.
The minister was hopeful that Siem Reap’s hotel industry would see a resurgence by 2011.
“If the hotels cut down the price and do good marketing, I think that they can stand 2009 and 2010,” Mr Khon said.