Recent efforts by Phnom Penh police to clear riverside walkways by telling businesses on the city’s busy Sisowath Quay to remove furniture has some business owners complaining that their trade has taken a severe blow.
But municipality and police officials—and one leading tourism professional—say the intent of clearing the sidewalk is misunderstood and does not have to have a major impact on the businesses involved.
Peter van der Poel, co-owner of a riverside restaurant that he did not want named, said the order—delivered in a letter dated Dec 14—had caused him to “literally lose half my business from one day to the next.”
“I have 22 staff here, and this loss of business…obviously affects them as well as me,” he said.
“These couple of months are very important months for us, and this [rule] hits us at the worst possible moment,” he said, referring to the peak of Cambodia’s tourist season.
But Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong claimed that business owners had not been ordered off the sidewalk completely, saying the law allows businesses to use 1/3 of the sidewalk in front of their establishments. He said the practice of clearing sidewalks to make the city more beautiful was “nothing new,” though he said he could not remember when it started.
“[Businesses] are abusing the sidewalk, we are not abusing the businesses,” the deputy governor said.
“According to the law, individuals can use 1/3 of the sidewalk and leave 2/3 for pedestrians…. You are allowed to use [the sidewalk], but you cannot privatize it,” he added.
However, a copy of a letter delivered to some businesses on Sisowath Quay makes no mention of the 1/3 pavement usage, instead saying owners are “strictly prohibited” from doing any business on the sidewalk.
“Phsar Kandal I commune would like to inform the owners of restaurants, hotels and guesthouses they are strictly prohibited from doing business on the Sisowath Square sidewalk,” reads the letter, signed by commune chief Kong Rith.
“Business and other services must be conducted inside the house’s gate,” the letter orders.
Some business owners have also questioned why Sisowath Quay, the main tourist strip, appears to be the only location in the city that is being targeted for sidewalk clearance.
A second business owner, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation from local police, said he had been told the clearance was to make the city “more beautiful.”
He added that he had seen a drop of about 25 percent in his riverfront business since being ordered to remove his tables from the sidewalk.
“They said this was to make the view more beautiful, but how can a street filled with construction and huge traffic jams be made beautiful?” the restaurant owner asked, adding that he also had not heard that he could use 1/3 of the sidewalk.
“And it doesn’t make sense to make it more attractive to tourists by taking away places for the tourists to sit,” he added.
However, Ho Vandy, former president of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents and co-chair of the government-private sector tourism working group, agreed with the municipality’s goals, saying tourists, locals and businesses all stand to benefit.