Despite the reopening of checkpoints with Thailand on March 21, tourism businesses in the border towns of Koh Kong and Poipet are still reeling, as Thai gamblers have yet to return to the tables in profitable numbers.
Yuth Phouthang, provincial governor of Koh Kong, on Monday partially blamed his town’s lean times on the worldwide outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which is hurting tourism across Asia. But probably more detrimental, he said, is a new Thai government policy that requires its nationals to present passports before crossing into Cambodia for a day of gaming.
Yuth Phouthang said that before the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots, Thais in tour groups or VIP groups could easily cross the border on a one-day visa without having their passports stamped by Cambodian border officials. He said their numbers have since dropped from about 300 to 10 people per day.
When the border reopened, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra urged Thai nationals to refrain from patronizing the casinos of neighboring countries. Yuth Phouthang said the new Thai policy is a measure designed to see that Thaksin’s discouragement is heeded. Thailand recently has been debating legalizing gambling and developing its own gaming industry.
Tep Phalla, an employee of the Grand Diamond City Casino and Resort in Poipet said Monday that the Thais’ tighter immigration restrictions have made it more difficult for gamblers of other nationalities to cross into Cambodia as well. He said the passport requirement has discouraged tourists from places like Hong Kong and Malaysia from bringing their spending money to Cambodia.
“It is treated more seriously at the checkpoint. Each Thai citizen and others must bring their passports to get stamped. Before they could just show [their passports] from the car and it was OK if they were VIPs,” he said.
Tep Phalla said the number of customers at his casino have dropped from 100 to 20 people a day. He said he and his 700 Cambodian coworkers fear they will lose their jobs if those numbers do not improve.
But on the eastern border with Vietnam, the casino business is stable, said Chea Peach, a representative of Le Macau Casino and Hotel in Svay Rieng province.
“Our casino guests are Vietnamese, not Chinese or Thai. SARS is in Hanoi. Our guests are from Ho Chi Minh City. We are far away from SARS,” Chea Peach said. He said the 3-year-old Le Macau Casino has about 100 gamblers a day, most of them women.
“We have organized classical dancing and a Khmer circus or Vietnamese traditional dancing to encourage our guests,” he said. “We want them to have happiness.”
The gaming industry in Sihanoukville, though far from booming, remains fairly steady, too, a supervisor for the port town’s Palace Hotel and Casino reported Monday. The supervisor, who asked not to be named, said most of his customers are local Chinese businessmen or Chinese nationals who have invested in Cambodia.
He added that casinos in Sihanoukville were suffering long before the Thai-border dispute, the outbreak of SARS and the start of the war in Iraq. “If the Chinese gamblers come to Cambodia, they will go to Phnom Penh first,” he said. “To come to Sihanoukville is a little far for them.”
Sihanoukville’s Peak Hotel closed its in-house casino three months ago due to a lack of business.