Private sector tourism operators claimed yesterday that a new government mandate that charges travellers an additional $2 fee to use ferry services to reach the islands off the coast near Sihanoukville has sparked a furious backlash from domestic tourists.
The Sihanoukville Provincial Tourism Department began enforcing the $2 fee on all passengers destined primarily for the islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem, as well as private destinations, on August 10, according to department head Taing Socheat Kroesna. He said the revenue generated by the new fee would be used to help Sihanoukville and the islands clean up the environment and improve public facilities.
“The purpose of collecting the fee at the port is to develop public services, protect the environment and strengthen security while promoting the tourism industry,” he said, adding that the Finance Ministry announced the new fee in July, which should have given operators adequate time to resolve any issues.
However, Suy Sreymom, CEO of Island Speed Ferry Cambodia, which operates a ferry service to the coastal islands, said local tourists had voiced bitterness over the new fee.
“The fee is the worst thing for the government to implement and it will damage the island’s image for local tourists,” she said, adding that the government initially tried to get the private sector to impose the fee but tour operators rejected it.
She said Cambodians find the new fee objectionable as they regard the islands to be public land that should be freely accessible to all citizens. Many have drawn comparisons to the famed temples of Angkor Wat, which carry a steep entry cost for foreigners while Cambodian citizens can visit for free.
“Now local visitors argue with government officials that collect the fee at the port,” Sreymom said.
“This wouldn’t be a big issue if they only charged international tourists because they could earn enough to develop the area just from that,” she added.
Sreymom also questioned the legitimacy of the government imposing a fee on ferry services as the port and its ferry networks were built using private investments.
Sinan Thourn, chairman of the Cambodian chapter for the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), said that he does not support the additional $2 fee in Sihanoukville, which he considers inappropriate and unnecessary.
“The government already collects tax payments from businesses, and both local and international tourists will not be happy if we impose this fee on our own services,” he said. “The government should consider dropping the fee before it hurts the tourism industry.”