Sunday, September 21, 2008

Cambodia's Koh Kong casino enclave

Thai tourists are being reminded that the Cambodian border province of Koh Kong offers much more than just the casinos for which it is famous.

Mayuda Mang, deputy chief of the Tourism Department of Koh Kong, said at the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) workshop on biodiversity conservation and tourism development in Bangkok that the 11,000 sq km province has a wide variety of tourist attractions.

"Koh Kong is home to the country's largest mangrove areas and we still have several small pristine islands eligible for ecotourism development," said Ms Mayuda.

She said that no matter how volatile relations between the two countries have been in recent months, Koh Kong and the opposite province of Trat have remained on good neighbourly terms.

Trat has sent experts to help Koh Kong villagers preserve mangrove forests, said Ms Mayuda, adding: "We appreciate that cooperation and would like to see deepened collaboration on nature conservation in our country."

However, she conceded that Road No 48, which was jointly opened by then-deputy prime minister Somchai Wongsawat and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, with a bridge linking the Thai border to Koh Kong and on to Phnom Penh, would inevitably attract all kinds of investors, traders and gamblers to Cambodia.

The Thai government gave financial support to build the road.

It takes about one hour to drive from Trat to Koh Kong and another three hours to go on to the capital Phnom Penh.

The owners of the casino projects are Thais and Cambodians and gamblers come not only from Thailand, but also from China and Taiwan, as well as a few locals.

Asked how much progress Thailand's former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra had made in his reported investment in Koh Kong, Ms Mayuda said he had taken 10 interested parties to meet Hun Sen last April, but none of them, including Mr Thaksin, had yet confirmed they had initiated any projects.

"The picture will become clearer after Hun Sen's new government is up and running. Until that time, probably only two or three investors might seriously want to pursue business in Koh Kong," Ms Mayuda said.

Mr Thaksin has shown interest in leasing Koh Kong Khrao, an 80 sq km island off Koh Kong, to develop an entertainment complex, but she did not know how negotiations were progressing.

She also said that a South Korean company had been given a 99-year lease to develop hotel, entertainment and eco-tourism businesses on Koh Yo, another small island off Koh Kong.

And a Kuwaiti investor has pledged US$15 million (511 million baht) to help transform Cambodia into an agro-business hub.

Koh Kong's efforts to lure different kinds of tourists is part of Cambodia's wider strategy to develop the industry nationwide so that the impoverished country will not continue to rely on its top drawing card, Angkor Wat.

Anne-Maria Makela, senior tourism adviser for the Netherlands Development Organisation, said at the workshop that too much focus has been placed on Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, and the country should bring more communities into the tourism picture.

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