The southwestern Cambodian province of Koh Kong may be lagging behind the other three coastal provinces in terms of economic development, but local authorities are steadfast in their resolution to push investment on infrastructure, accommodation and eco-tourism to catch up.
Efforts to develop the province are taking place alongside a government-led plan to bolster connectivity in the sea corridor, which extends from Koh Kong to Kep – an area that Prime Minister Hun Sen recently said is of key importance for the economic development of the country.
Located in the country’s southwest, 290 kilometres away from Phnom Penh, Koh Kong covers an area of more than 10,000 square kilometres and is home to 119 villages and nearly 131,000 people. Its provincial town and biggest urban centre is Khemarak Phumin city.
“Because we are close to the border with Thailand, many people are traders, with many others employed in the agriculture or construction sector, or working in garment factories or as fishermen,” said Mithona Phouthorng, Koh Kong’s governor.
“Visitors to the province have plenty of options, from natural sites such as Tatai Waterfall, to eco-tourism communities in Peam Krasoap and Chi Phat, among many others,” she said.
During his speech in this year’s Sea Festival, which was held in Koh Kong this month, Prime Minister Hun Sen stressed the need for all actors in Koh Kong to prioritise the development of infrastructure, particularly airports, roads, water treatment plants, electricity towers and accommodation.
“We must work to expand and bolster connectivity in the sea corridor, from Koh Kong, through Preah Sihanouk and Kampot, all the way to Kep, as this is an area of key importance for the economy,” the minister said.
He said that National Road 48, which connects the province to Phnom Penh, will be expanded to four lanes in the near future, adding that there are plans to build new roads connecting the province to Battambang in the north.
“Koh Kong authorities will also have to work on the province’s road network, building, for instance, better roads between the provincial town Khemarak Phumin to Dara Sakor to reduce travel times,” the prime minister said.
Mr Hun Sen said that once Dara Sakor, which he described as an “eco-tourism resort”, is finished, Koh Kong might become one of the biggest tourist draws in the country, particularly taking into consideration that a new airport is planned in Kiri Sakor district.
“Bangkok Airways will invest in a new airport that will accommodate medium-size aircraft. In Dara Sakor, there will also be an airport to fly in the guests,” he said in his speech.
The governor, Ms Mithona, said her province has already made a number of significant achievements. Among them, she lists the construction of National Road 48 and of four bridges across the inlets, as well as three hydropower dams, a sugar cane refinery and a special economic zone.
She highlighted the role of Chinese-owned company Union Development Group Co, one of the biggest investor in the province with several projects in Kiri Sakor.
“Infrastructure is being built and rehabilitated continuously, such as roads in remote areas, parks, schools, hospitals, health centres, administrative buildings, as well as natural and historical resorts to transform Koh Kong into a beautiful and modern land,” she added.
Chheng Sovannda, governor of Khemarak Phumin city, told Khmer Times that the province is welcoming investors, local or international, with arms wide open.
When asked if he thought too much foreign investment might turn the quiet province into the next Sihanoukville, Mr Sovannda said authorities remain vigilant to ensure that the province retains its character in the face of development and that its natural resources are not spoilt.
“We should not only heed conservationists’ advice, because if we do so the province will never develop. But we must listen to their concerns to ensure that we put mechanisms in place to protect our natural treasures,” he said, adding that maintaining safety for the province’s citizens and protecting the social order are also a priority for his government, particularly as investment begins to roll in.
“Koh Kong does not yet have big development projects like the ones you see in Preah Sihanouk province or Kampot. When these big investments do come in, we hope that they will improve people’s lives, but we will have to get serious about security,” Mr Sovannda said.
“If we do not put in place mechanisms to manage this type of investments, we will have to grapple with some of the problems that Sihanoukville has, like too many foreigners, many of whom are involved in illegal activities.
“In the long term, we do hope to see more big investments in Koh Kong as our province has a lot of potential, including vast natural resources,” he added.
Chheang Ngoun, president of Koh Kong’s Chamber of Commerce, told Khmer Times that the real estate sector is experiencing steady growth, creating thousands of jobs for local people, with most investors hailing from China.
However, not much real estate money is going into the provincial town, Khemarak Phumin, with most projects concentrated in the areas around the border with Thailand.
“Fortunately, despite this investment, not much has changed regarding the cost of living for regular people. Crime has not been a concern either,” he said.
Mr Ngoun urged investors to consider eco-tourism projects in the province, explaining that Koh Kong has stunning landscapes and other natural wonders.
But Koh Kong is already home to a massive development: the Dara Sakor Seashore Resort. Located in Botum Sakor National Park, the resort is being developed by China’s Tianjin Union Development Group (UDG)
Extending over 1,200 hectares, it will encompass five-star hotels and bungalows, as well as condominiums and office buildings, an international airport, trade centres and entertainment complexes.
Set Rasou, resident of Khemarak Phumin city, told Khmer Times that the living standards of people in the province are rising every year.
“I think the authorities have done a good job at managing the inflow of immigrants. We see a lot of foreigners, especially Chinese tourists near the border, but the security situation is still very stable,” Mr Rasou said.
“We don’t have a problem with foreigners here like they do in Sihanoukville. I hope we learn from Sihanouville’s experience. It’s true that foreign investment has lifted people’s living standards there, but it has come at the expense of social order and safety.
“I hope the Koh Kong government can learn from Sihanoukville’s experience and prepare for a potential surge in tourists and foreign investment. I hope they can continue to successfully manage the inflow of foreigners properly to avoid disruptions to the social order.”
Mr Rasou believes that to ensure foreign investment has a positive impact on society, the government must prioritise the drafting of strong regulation.
He said one of the biggest hurdles to the development of the province’s tourism sector is the distance that separates Koh Kong from Phnom Penh. The province is too far away for most tourists, who only have a few days to spend in the Kingdom and do not want to travel for long periods of time, choosing to visit Sihanoukville or Kampot instead, he explained.
According Tourism Minister Thong Khon, in 2018 the coast of Cambodia will receive 920,000 international tourists, with Koh Kong alone welcoming 90,000 of them.
“By 2020, the coast will receive 1.2 million foreign tourist, and 3 million by 2030,” the minister pointed out.
However, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that action is needed to guarantee that tourism and foreign investment do not ruin the coast’s natural beauty, and to ensure that the coastal areas retain their membership in the Club of the Most Beautiful Bays of the World.
“We must take action to attract more eco-tourism projects like Dara Sakor resort instead of projects that destroy our natural treasures. We must protect our bays and our mangrove forests, while improving our waste disposal systems so that less trash ends up in the ocean,” the premier added.