Karaoke is not a word synonymous in Cambodia with wholesome family fun. Usually the word carries connotations of officials, businessmen, thugs and sex tourists pounding whiskey, popping pills and groping girls with low-cut dresses or see-through shirts.
And that, the Ministry of Tourism says, is not good for color brochures exalting the wonders of Cambodia.
So the ministry is making an effort to clean up karaoke parlors and has issued a directive that outlines measures clubs must undertake to carry the ministry’s seal of approval.
The karaoke business is “booming” in Phnom Penh, and may begin booming in the provinces soon, said Yang Vorn, the director of the ministry’s registration department. So from now on, Yang Vorn said, karaoke businesses will be supervised and issued licenses by the ministry.
A “tourism license” will go only to those karaoke clubs that meet a long list of standards, starting with clean silverware and ending with the elimination of prostitution, drugs and gambling.
“Cambodia cannot afford to be known as a destination of sex tourism,” said Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth.
Right now, karaoke clubs are not required to have licenses and the new directive carries no penalties for violators. Rather, the license serves as a seal of approval that the ministry hopes will lure the right kind of customers into karaoke clubs.
Veng Sereyvuth issued the directive last week to around 100 officials nationwide requiring their participation in inspections both in Phnom Penh and in the provinces.
Police, provincial governors and district authorities will all have to be a part of the process, noting, for example, which clubs run drugs or underage girls, Veng Sereyvuth said. Those clubs would not be granted a tourism license, he said.
The elimination of vice won’t be the only criteria for a license.
Fire-escape plans, proper registration and healthy, hygienic, polite, moral and respectful staff will all be required of a club that wants to have the tourism license, Nuth Nin Doeurn said.
No pornographic videos can be shown, and no one under the age of 18 will be allowed in without his or her family.
Licenses will be good for just one year, according to the directive, after which time owners must reapply within one month of expiration. If a business changes hands, the new owner has up to three months to apply for a new license. Licenses will cost from $50 to $200.
In the past, the roles of the municipal, provincial and ministerial officials had been unclear as to who would be in charge of the management of such entertainment facilities, the majority of which are fronts—or simple preambles—for prostitution.
There are some small “family-run” businesses where legitimate karaoke takes place, said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, but most of the “big, fancy, lighted shops” are facades for prostitution.
Curbing the practice will not only take a good directive, but good enforcement as well, she said, adding that it is not always easy in developing countries like Cambodia to enforce such things.
Ministry officials admit that it will not be an easy task to eradicate the rife prostitution that exists in karaoke clubs.
But, Veng Sereyvuth said, “it is high time for everything.”
With Cambodia’s culture and historical sites, there is no need to rely on sex tourism, he said, adding that the directive is meant as a first step toward polishing the country’s image abroad.
The ministry is holding training seminars with ministry staff so that “spot checks” of clubs can begin, perhaps as soon as August, said Nuth Nin Doeurn, secretary of state for the ministry, who is overseeing the project.
Karaoke clubs should be a “fun place, to go to enjoy singing,” he said. “Not to have sex in there.”
But he acknowledged that the directive “doesn’t have teeth like a law,” because there is no punishment for violators.
The ministry, however, is examining a new tourism law drafted with the help of the Asian Development Bank that will enable sharper teeth to grow.
Once implemented, club owners could face fines if they don’t have proper licenses, Nuth Nin Doeurn said.
Sok Leakhena, deputy cabinet chief for Phnom Penh, said the city is dedicated to curbing child trafficking, prostitution and gambling. The municipality will work closely with the Tourism Ministry, he said.
The inspections and licensing of karaoke clubs will be up to the Ministry of Tourism, but the land titles will remain the responsibility of municipal authorities, he said.