Foreign tourists at Angkor Wat have become “too stingy,” complained Sokda Lin, sitting with her wares recently outside of Ta Prohm temple. “I have started asking myself and my friends, ‘Why don’t they buy souvenirs the same as before?’”
Some vendors say their goods were probably the same as in Thailand. Other vendors say the price was too high. Others complained that tourists don’t know when to haggle.
And while any of those answers may be in part the truth, the Ministry of Tourism is more concerned that the ingrained system of commissions, whereby guards and drivers lead dollar-spending tourists only to specific places in exchange for money from the shop owners, is killing the industry.
Sales of souvenirs have dropped by as much as 30 percent in the first four months of this year compared to last year, said Kousoum Saroeun, director-general of the Ministry of Tourism.
The ministry is investigating at least four potential fraud cases after receiving complaints from foreign tourists who, after returning to their home countries, found the souvenirs they purchased for hundreds of dollars turned out to be a worth a fraction of what they had paid.
A British woman, after paying more than $300 for a teak carving and shipping it home, received a cheaper, soft-wood version of the carving, broken in pieces. A Hungarian woman bought a ring and two necklaces in Siem Reap, paying more than $500. In her home country, they were declared fake.
Kousoum Saroeun blamed the continued use of a “commission” system in Siem Reap, which affects hotels and restaurants, for forcing souvenir shops in particular to sell lower quality goods at higher prices just to stay competitive.
Tour guides, automobile taxi drivers and motorcycle taxi drivers often, if not always, demand commissions from Siem Reap businesses. Without this commission, tourists will be referred to another establishment by their drivers or guides.
“We found taxi drivers scared the tourists by saying a hotel owner are Khmer Rouge, or saying in this or that hotel [people were] committing a crime, [so] ‘You had better go to another,” Kousoum Saroeun said.
Tourists “don’t trust the vendors anymore,” he said. To stay in business, the shops pay a commission. To pay the commission, they sell low-quality or fake goods.
“If you all keep cheating them by selling fake and high-priced [goods], it means you have killed the tourism industry,” said Thong Khon, secretary of state for the Tourism Ministry. “The commission [system] will lead the tourism sector to point zero.”
Tourism, like any business, depends on word of mouth. A tourist with an enjoyable experience might recommend to their friends to go to the same destination the next year. So complaints like those sent by dissatisfied foreigners frighten the ministry.
“We enjoyed a wonderful visit to your country and especially to the Angkor Wat sites,” Anne MacLeod, the British tourist with the broken carving, wrote in a letter to Tourism Minister Veng Sereyvuth, “so this episode was a sad disappointment.”
She forwarded the minister a letter she’d already sent to Phnom Pich Souvenir Shop in Siem Reap.
After touring the temples of Angkor Wat, she wrote, “I purchased a teak carving of a temple relief for the sum of $338 (including carriage to the UK).”
The package delivered “contained an inferior carving in stained soft wood. It was smashed into several pieces. The accompanying [invoice] gives the value of the item as $35. Either some mistake has been made, or I have been the victim of fraud.”
In a letter to the ministry, Em Sophary, owner of Phnom Pich Souvenir shop, said she would compensate MacLeod for the loss, but said it was unfair.
In her letter, she did not address the complaint that the product was inferior from the original purchase. The breakage, she said, had been the fault of the delivery company.
“My shop made no mistake,” she wrote.
Em Sophary could not be reached for further comment.
For Hungarian Bagi Gyulane, whose embassy in Hanoi sent a letter in her behalf, compensation for the $500 in “fake” gold and gems may not be as easy to get.
“I won’t pay any money if the buyer does not return those rings and necklace back to me,” said Soulong Vany, owner of the Sila Angkor souvenir, gem and jewelry shop. “In Siem Reap province, it is a free market. We don’t force customers to buy…. All types of products have a price. If they like, they can buy. If they don’t like it, they should not buy it.”
There are hundreds of shops in Siem Reap town competing with each other, all of them paying a commission to tour guides and drivers, he said.
“I gave a $150 commission fee to the guide, out of $500 [purchased] value of the rings and the necklace,” he said. “I make $8; the guide makes $150.”
The guides are treated like “kings,” he said. “If not, my shop won’t have any customers, and will eventually shut its doors. I know this is a problem, but I don’t think people will stop it.”