Riverview Dining on a Roll

Tourism’s down. Foreign in­vestment’s down. But Phnom Penh’s riverfront keeps growing.

In the last six months, eight restaurants catering to foreigners opened on Sisowath Quay, as small investors gamble on the outcome of July’s election.

“Opening a business here is like a game,” said Lay Neth, own­er of the two-month-old restaurant Veriyo Tonle. “I’m hoping more foreigners will come, may­be after the election.”

Since the fighting of July 5 and 6, restaurant owners along the street say, business has been sporadic.

Some restaurants along the river reported business has fallen by as much as half in the last month, reflecting the onset of the tourism low season. Phnom Penh’s high season is from No­vember to March, said Pierre Jungo at Diethelm Travel.

As the number of tourists de­clines, the competition for pa­tronage heats up; this year, it is fiercer than usual.

“There are too many restaurants and not enough people,” commented Alisa Um, manager of Apsara restaurant.

The Ministry of Tourism said last month that the numbers of foreign tourists in Cambodia dropped by 60 percent in the last half of 1997.

Despite the numbers, some new restaurant owners said they are optimistic and view the next few months as a preparatory period for a brighter, busier future.

“We plan to stabilize our new business before the election, then we are ready for when people, foreigners, come,” said Vicheaka Leeiang, a partner in the Vich­eaka restaurant. The eatery   opened Sunday in the building previously occupied by La Rot­onde, a French restaurant that closed last month when the owner was arrested by Interpol on suspicion of robbing banks in Denmark.

The 2-km strip of Sisowath Quay where the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers meet has been a popular spot for foreign diners in Phnom Penh since the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cam­bodia opened in 1992.

At that time, the only other restaurant nearby was Ponlok, which has served a mostly Cam­bodian clientele since 1984. Now, there are more than 20 restaurants and bars catering to foreigners with cuisine ranging from Sri Lankan to European. Diners come to eat al fresco and watch the sunset over the rivers.

The prime location is not the only allure for small investors. Rents along the riverfront are only slightly more expensive than on other streets in Phnom Penh, said Sam Som Oeur, director of Cambodia Indochina Assets Ltd.

CIAL owns property around the capital, including the Foreign Correspondents Club.

Sam Som Oeur also co-owns the Rendezvous restaurant, where he said he pays $450 per month in rent. Other, smaller venues said they pay about $350.

But as with any gamble, new restaurant owners recognize they may lose. Factors in their success, restaurant owners said, will be less a function of economics than politics.

“If the election is not good, no foreigners will come,” Vicheaka Leeiang said.

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