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Thailand’s 3rd wave wreaks havoc on the Tourism Restart Plan – where are we now?

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PHOTO: Empty beaches of Hua Hin - AJ Wood

OPINION by Andrew J Wood

Thailand Ministers ponder the next steps to re-start it’s massive tourism industry, initially set for July 1, 2021 in Phuket. The plan may need to be overhauled as Phuket struggles to immunise the whole island in the wake of the third wave of hotspots. Phuket, prior to the third wave had already secured more than 100,000 doses and planned to receive an additional 930,000 doses by June.

This would be enough for 70% of the population – the target needed to achieve herd immunity. The spike in Covid-19 cases has interrupted this plan, as vaccines must also be allocated to other provinces urgently to help fight the latest outbreaks.

Not deterred, the Tourism and Sports Minister Pipat Ratchakitprakarn said he plans to meet next week with all relevant agencies to discuss the reopening plan, previously set for July this year. Eighteen provinces have now been declared red zones, with a partial lockdown and stay at home order. The alert warning was also raised across the rest of the country to orange, in all the remaining 59 provinces many of which had previously been green and considered safe.

Deciding to ignore expert warnings, the government allowed the Songkran holidays to go ahead, even adding an extra day. However no mass gatherings or water splashing were allowed.

(Songkran is the Thai New Year celebration which typically lasts 3-4 days, leading to a mass exodus of cities like Bangkok).

Last year, due to Covid-19, the holiday was cancelled. As a result of the holiday this year, a few outbreaks in Bangkok allowed the virus to spread widely. The Bangkok outbreaks centred on entertainment places; restaurant-pubs and nightclubs around the Thonglor area, plus a high-society wedding at a new riverside hotel, whose guest list included a number of government Ministers and prominent business leaders.

The Covid virus from these few hotspots were quickly spread throughout the whole country, as people returned to their homes for the holidays. Unfortunately this was a perfect storm for spreading the virus. Up until this point, since the beginning of the pandemic, Thailand had only recorded 28,889 cases and 94 deaths as at April 1, 2021. Eighteen days later this has risen to 43,742 cases and 104 deaths. An increase in cases of 51%.

During my recent visit to Hua Hin, empty beaches were very much in evidence already with the third wave leading to mass cancellations. Some resorts, previously 70-80% occupied, saw domestic arrivals decimated. Already hurting from a lack of international visitors, this latest outbreak was a most unwelcome guest.

The question of re-opening Thailand to Tourism, starting with Phuket, has obviously taken a knock backwards.

“The key determinant is insufficient vaccines, we are concerned about the re-opening timeline. We still need to discuss the vaccine administration plan. If the herd immunity goal cannot be achieved, we may have to consider opening only certain areas in Phuket”.

However, to continue with the same plan, even with restricted zones, will not be easy as long as the country still has increasing new daily infections, said Minister Pipat.

“Most importantly, we still have to hear from other countries that we already started travel bubble negotiations with about their confidence regarding the same timeline.”

Like Hua Hin, hotels in the North reported cancellations of more than 70% with Chiang Mai a cause for concern and currently experiencing increased coronavirus cases. Prior to the pandemic, the province was a popular destination to celebrate Thai New Year.

Regrettably Minister Pipat is in self-quarantine after being in close contact with Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob, who was diagnosed with Covid-19. The Minster fortunately has already received his first vaccination jab last month (AstraZeneca) and will remain in isolation until next week when all tests are complete (3 swab tests).

ANDREW J WOOD

Andrew J Wood was born in Yorkshire England, he is a professional hotelier, Skalleague and travel writer. Andrew has 48 years of hospitality and travel experience. He is a hotel graduate of Napier University, Edinburgh. Andrew is a past Director of Skål International (SI), National President SI Thailand and is currently President of SI Bangkok and a VP of both SI Thailand and SI Asia. He is a regular guest lecturer at various Universities in Thailand including Assumption University’s Hospitality School and the Japan Hotel School in Tokyo.

The content of this article reflects the writer and does not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of The Thaiger.

 

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16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jason

    Monday, April 19, 2021 at 4:59 pm

    Today, Australia and New Zealand openned the first quarantine free travel agreement since the pandemic began. It’s a sign of hope! I hope that Phuket can ready itself, so that travellers who would love to come there, can do so without restriction.

  2. Avatar

    John Magee

    Monday, April 19, 2021 at 6:33 pm

    ““The key determinant is insufficient vaccines, we are concerned about the re-opening timeline. We still need to discuss the vaccine administration plan. If the herd immunity goal cannot be achieved, we may have to consider opening ONLY CERTAIN AREAS in Phuket. :)))

  3. Avatar

    toby andrews

    Monday, April 19, 2021 at 8:35 pm

    Too late Thailand. Europe is opening up to tourists from many countries without quarantine.
    The reason many western countries have vaccinated, and Thailand has not.
    UK, May the 17th. Greece, France, Portugal, Spain, Poland and many more will be opening in May. The USA are also invited.
    Thailand, where many cannot even obtain a test, and most cannot be vaccinated, will have lost the western, high paying tourists this year.
    So holding back vaccines and tests so that the private hospitals could sell them, will no doubt make some Thais rich, but most citizens poor.
    It could not happen to a more deserving country.

  4. Avatar

    Simon Small

    Monday, April 19, 2021 at 9:31 pm

    “Europe is opening up to tourists from many countries without quarantine.”

    Splendid.

    “The reason many western countries have vaccinated, and Thailand has not.”

    That wasn’t an option for Thailand, just as it wasn’t for most of the world, as ten countries have administered over 75% of all the available vaccines.

    The EU alone has bought more doses than the rest of the world – enough to vaccinate everyone in the EU twice, with half a billion doses left over.

    If that makes you happy, up to you.

    … and FWIW the “high paying tourists” are not “western”.
    Whether it’s per head, per day or per holiday, Westerners are amongst the lowest spenders in Thailand.

  5. Avatar

    Leo Z

    Monday, April 19, 2021 at 10:01 pm

    @Toby, agreed. In all the countries you mentioned, the tests are free, and so are the vaccines.

    Thailand for over half a year has operated under the impression that foreigners cannot wait to get back to Thailand, no matter what. Get back to a country where you have to jump hoops AND pay 4,000-6,000 baht for a test, and where the vaccination rate is much lower than Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s(!).

    At this point, if one is not already fully vaccinated AND doesn’t have a job in Thailand, there’s very little reason to go there. And the Chinese certainly don’t fit the bill either, as on return they have to do 14 days quarantine in hotel, plus 7 days at home.

    I don’t agree with your last sentence, the Thai people deserve better. But that’s for another discussion.

  6. Avatar

    EdwardV

    Monday, April 19, 2021 at 10:26 pm

    The draw of a mostly tourist free Europe will be tough counter to a Phuket in the wet season. That is of course if they can even open Phuket by the fall.

  7. Avatar

    Sylvia L.

    Monday, April 19, 2021 at 10:27 pm

    It is indeed scandalous that no vaccines are made available for the ordinary people of Thailand … how on earth an they ever expect tourists to come here while the country has the worst record in Asia for vaccinations …. the gov could and should buy the vaccine from wherever and could vacciate the entire country and thus save the economy … the money is there ! It would only cost approx 500,000 million dollars and that would be peanuts for those who have $ billions in their accounts ….

  8. Avatar

    Sarah

    Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at 1:07 am

    It hurts me to say this but Thailand is in serious trouble and it’s the Thai people who unfortunately will suffer. It’s only going to get worse my heart bleeds but you can see what’s happening. Thailand is finished now for maybe 2 years with tourism

  9. Avatar

    Look ni

    Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at 1:10 am

    “The key determinant is insufficient vaccines”

    It isn’t. The key determinant is varieties of lockdown. Ministers gathering at top hotels, songjran festivities, mosques and idil fitri – these are all extremely foolish events to allow.

    As to vaccines, whose is the government that supposedly vaccinates the vulnerable where in fact the police, armed forces and admin are second after the government; the rest can get the jab for for 2,ooob in private hospitals, the young take the virus back to their grandparents in the villages ?

    Certain families could use their gains to finance a proper recovery. Reap the benefits in a power economy takeoff. Or of course, reap the whirlwind.

  10. Avatar

    New name

    Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at 1:53 am

    I think in a few months Thailand will open up, and virus headlines disappear. The problem will just go away. All this vaccination talk will go away and we will be talking about how khoasan road is busy again. And hotels are sold out. Real estate prices booming.. You’ll see what they have planned. It’s coming.

  11. Avatar

    Mr cynic

    Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at 3:39 am

    How does anybody think all these tourists desperate to get to thailand if they really exist are going to get here?the majority of the world’s long range passenger aircraft outside of the usa and china have been placed in longterm storage or decommissioned and many of the crews who used to operate them have either been early retired or are no longer able to fly the aircraft they used to without lengthy and expensive training to regain currency and get the type rating back on their licences.it can not all be done in a simulator and there are not that many approved simulators available for such aircraft worldwide anyway.you can not just kick the tyres,light the fires and put the things back in the sky again.long haul flights will be very infrequent compared to 2019 levels of traffic due to the above bottleneck and many other reasons.they are also likely to be extremely expensive.
    Every so often very senior bods from some of the world’s major carriers give an update on the situation.most of them seem to think it will take until 2025 minimum for traffic to be back to 2019 levels at best for long haul.only the very determined will arrive from the traditional thai markets.having witnessed several dramatic tourist declines from the west to thailand
    In the past i noticed the most resilient tourists seem to be the two week millionaires/sex tourist type and the backpackers.
    If tat want westerners to return to thailand it is probably best they concentrate on attracting sex tourists to the realm as they are the most likely to stump up for the expensive airfare and actually cum.
    Perhaps a more sensible option would be to concentrate on regional countries such as china and india when/if things ever settle down again.

  12. Avatar

    Jack Sombra

    Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at 5:51 am

    @Jason, the Aus/NZ is not the first travel bubble by a long shot, have been many more over around the world during the last year, all ‘popped’, most in days/weeks. Aus/NZ was the first talked about though, over a year ago. So either a year to set up and/or popped in a tiny fraction of that time. Ie travel bubbles are stupid unworkable nonsense that really wish Aus and NZ never mentioned in first place.

    @Simon, While there was no way Thailand could match the rich countrys (though by way gov was talking at end of last year, start of this one they thought they could ) to be 126th out 160 odd countrys is beyond abysmal. And now really starting to wonder about the locally produced vaccine, so far in last 7 days ‘delivery’ went from July, to May, to June, back to July and whole facility is still a total no go area, highly unusual for Thai gov to hide something thats running even remotely on schedule, so makes one ask what are they hiding?

  13. Avatar

    EdwardV

    Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at 6:00 am

    concentrating on Chinese and Indians is problematic for now. There is little reason to believe the Chinese will want to travel in large numbers since they are probably the most risk adverse tourists out there. It’s also highly unlikely the Chinese government will let them return without a quarantine (if they let them come at all). Keep in mind they and the Indians have low vaccination rates. The Indians are in the middle of a huge outbreak and it will take months to subside. They are probably out of the game until next year.

  14. Avatar

    Ben

    Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at 6:46 am

    Thailand, not being a rich western country, is at a disadvantage in obtaining vaccines and are now at the back of the line. They also don’t have the brain power and resources to produce vaccines themselves. The reopening plan is still intact. The timing is not because the Phuket population won’t be 70% vaccinated by July 1st. It could be August 1st or September 1st or October 1st or November 1st. Only time will tell. Swing and a miss – strike one.

    Politically they tied themselves to the Chinese wagon and that wagon produced Sinovac which isn’t a very good vaccine. Swing and a miss – strike two.

    Early in the pandemic, about a year ago, they could have been visionary and opened up their checkbook and secured the vaccines. To get to the front of the line they would need to be early and willing to pay a premium in an uncertain environment. Israel is an example of a country that did it and now they’re enjoying the fruits of their successful wager. It would have been costly ($10+ billion) but in hindsight worth it. Swing and a miss – strike three.

    Would it have been too much to expect Thailand to be this visionary under the circumstances?

    -They didn’t have a large amount of infections
    -They weren’t sure vaccines were going to work and wanted to see proof before payment
    -They saw the purpose of the vaccine as protecting their people and didn’t understand it would heal their economy faster too
    -They wanted to spend money on a submarine or two

    I’ve heard more than a few people in Thailand says they want economic success like Singapore. Singapore has administered enough doses to inoculate 14.6% of their population. Thailand has inoculated something like 1% so far. Did someone in the Thai government consult with someone in the Singaporean government on what they were doing?

  15. Avatar

    Doug

    Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at 2:33 pm

    Out of control. We only can hope for the best in the coming days and weeks. Before we did not know anyone close to us with Covid. Now its happening and getting really closer. A friend of a friend or family etc. got it +++ Agree that greed plays a major role in this and why we dont have enough vaccination. Where is the Johnson vaccine order ? When does the local Astra Zeneca production start etc. etc.

  16. Avatar

    Sai Yuan George

    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 2:14 am

    @Simon Small – Hi Simon. Westerners are not low spenders. Actually within the top 5 spenders in Thailand are 3 Western Origins.
    All the best
    https://www.statista.com/statistics/1140532/thailand-value-of-spending-per-tourist-by-region-of-origin/

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Opinion

PM takes over Thailand’s vaccine roll out. Public Health Minister found under bus – OPINION

Tim Newton

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OPINION

I went to register my name at a local private hospital in Phuket last Saturday for a place in the Covid vaccine queue. It was at the Bangkok Hospital Phuket. The first response from the reception area after the customary welcoming wai was “do you have insurance?”

I said yes, but that was not relevant to why I was here. I explained that I wanted to put my name on their Covid vaccine register as a former patient and enquire as to when they might expect to get deliveries of a vaccine.

The answer was clear. “I don’t know, nobody knows”. And, as far as we currently understand, that answer was correct.

For foreigners in Thailand, unless they happen to work for companies with “connections” or perhaps a public service that was earmarked in the first roll out of vaccines, the vast majority are doing more damage from scratching their heads at the moment.

We’ve contacted the Provincial Phuket Office in Phuket, and been told the same thing. Or “register at your hospital”.

The Thaiger has published numerous articles about the apparent vacillation of the government in regards to allowing private companies and hospitals to acquire their own stash of vaccines. First they could, then they couldn’t, then it was a “misunderstanding”, and then they could again, about 2 weeks ago.

But not ONE private hospital in Thailand currently has access to its own stocks of an approved Covid 19 vaccine. Not even unapproved vaccines, as far as we can tell. The Thai government are still putting up paperwork and red tape barriers preventing any private solutions to the country’s vaccine roll out.

Now I use the term “roll out” carefully. Because there hasn’t been a lot of rolling. There’s no doubt once the vaccines arrive on site there are plenty of front line doctors and nurses, and local organisers, who can efficiently and diligently administer the doses. That’s happened twice in Phuket and has now resulted in some 70,000 local people vaccinated. It’s happened in other places as well. But there’s certainly been no “military” precision (which you’d think these guys would be good at).

Somewhere between a current shortage of available vaccines, generally, and the Thai government being forced to sign off on any private orders, there has been no movement on the “private vaccine” front.

Dr Suwadee Puntpanich, a director at the Thonburi Hospital Group, told the Thai Enquirer that it’s currently “impossible for the private sector to bring in vaccines due to the government’s inaction”.

“We have sent numerous applications for vaccines to the Ministry of Public Health, to the minister, to the permanent secretary and have received no response”.

Given that the private medical sector would have contacts to negotiate and import drugs from international pharmaceutical companies, you’d think they’d be the government’s first phone call. But no. The government have established their own supply chains, dragging out the process until now we this third wave in Thailand and a vaccine roll out way behind peer nations and most of the rest of the world.

Last night the Thai PM decided to take control of the Kingdom’s vaccine roll out.

The Cabinet yesterday agreed to designate PM Prayut as the chief authority with responsibility for all decisions related to the pandemic. He will have sole responsibility for the country’s Communicable Disease Act, the Immigration Act, National Health Security Act, and the Medical Equipment Act, as well as several others. Critically, he will now be responsible for the procurement and distribution of vaccines, essential to combatting the outbreak in Thailand.

There has been some quite public friction between the PM and his outspoken Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul in recent weeks. This decision to take over the decision making in Thailand’s public health sphere is the equivalent to throwing his Bumjaithai party political partner under the bus.

Last week there was loud calls from opposition parties and social media for the resignation of the public health minister. Everything, from the shortage of hospital beds, the lack of vaccines, the decision to let Songkran go ahead, largely unfettered, and a slow reaction to the current outbreak have all fallen on the desk of Anutin.

The PM’s taking over of decision-making for Thailand’s public health at the moment may be an indication of strong, determined leadership. It’s also risky with Anutin pulling the strings on a rump of MPs that secured the PM his majority in the lower house following the 2019 general election.

A petition hosted on Change.org, demanding the resignation of Public Health Minister Anutin, has surpassed an initial target of 200,000 signatures. The target has now been increased to 300,000. 211,600 signatures have already been collected.

Also, as of this morning, the requests for signed paperwork from Thailand’s private hospital sector have remained unsigned.

 

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

A Thailand Covid update that you won’t read in the news

Tim Newton

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Tim Newton goes through some of the moving goal posts regarding Thailand’s Covid situation RIGHT NOW. Vaccines for expats, what will happen after Songkran, provincial restrictions, new quarantine requirements. Reading the tea leaves and reading between the lines, Tim provides his personal opinions on many issues expats and foreigners in Thailand are worried about at this time.

 

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Opinion

Tourism developments threaten Cambodia’s forests and coastline

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Chinese developer Yeejia has cleared large areas of once-forested land in Cambodia’s Ream National Park for its tourist resorts / Photo by Roun Ry for China Dialogue

The following story is by Danielle Keeton Olsen and Roun Ry for China Dialogue, a nonprofit focused on environmental news related to China and Asia.

“Before when we wanted to eat, we just went and caught some fish, but now it’s nothing like before, as all the natural resources have disappeared,” says 68 year old Sen Chantha who lives in a coastal hamlet within Ream National Park in southwest Cambodia. His house faces the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

The mangrove forests, wetlands and rocky coasts that supported abundant wildlife in the park have also attracted opportunistic developers. Cambodia’s government has granted development rights for mass tourism resorts leading to deforestation and the drainage of ecologically vital mangroves.

“On the way out, you will see many big trucks clearing land all over the place… They’ve started clearing about four kilometres away, and they’ll probably come here,” says Chantha, who has lived in Prek Trabek village since the early 1990s. As forest cover has disappeared, Chantha has become a campaigner, keen to defend his community against a Chinese developer backed by the Cambodian elite.

Rights threatened

Chantha’s family is one of more than 100 in his village engaged in a years-old conflict over land with the Chinese company Yeejia Tourism Development, whose concession surrounds their homes. The company has allowed them to remain in the area, but severely restricted their space to live and work.

55 year old Choeun Trop says Yeejia has taken part of her land and stopped her from collecting rattan from the forest.

Over the past 2 or 3 years, officials from the company have monitored her community tightly, at one point requiring members to carry identification cards and barring outside visitors, she says.

Trop’s son, then 16, is now in jail after joining a protest against Yeejia during which some protestors dismantled a guardhouse at the entrance to the company’s concession.

“We’re poor. It’s been very difficult, and we couldn’t ask anyone to help,” she says. She tried to enlist the support of 2 Cambodian human rights organisations, but both told her they could not intervene. “I cry and cry, and if I cry too much, I’m afraid I will faint again, and no one will take care of my son. My son cries because the situation inside the prison is terrible, and he has a very small space to sleep.”

Forests and wetlands

Ream National Park covers 34,000 hectares of diverse landscapes that include the Prek Toek Sap estuary, low-lying mountains, miles of mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs and parts of two islands.

General forests cover 55% of the land, while mangroves take about 7%. A vital ecosystem for biodiversity, mangroves support many plants, fish and crustaceans, and the fisheries they nurture feed local people.

Elsewhere in the park, remote areas of dry forest, covering 13%, could still conceal one of the last populations of rare wild cattle known as kouprey, according to a 2006 report by University of Copenhagen ecologist Robert Schmidt.

When Ream was established in 1995, it faced significant levels of commercial logging and fishing – at least one-third of its area had already been heavily changed as a result of resource extraction.

Finding ways to stop this was one of the new park’s main concerns, and international organisations, including the Asia Development Bank and the United Nations, were deployed to help find solutions.

Internationally funded projects concentrated on developing a management plan for the park and on training park rangers. Opening the park’s headquarters in late 1998, the then-environment minister, Mok Mareth, promised Ream would be a “role model” for protected areas in the country.

But although the funded projects did manage to end commercial resource extraction, illegal logging and fishing continued to flourish, with corrupt police, navy officers and fishermen combining forces to plunder the park. Then, when international funding ended in 2000, the park was left with very little financial support.

Several reports at the time recommended ecotourism as a way to fund the park. In one from the Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia, published in 2001, academic Thanakvaro Thyl de Lopez outlined a “dream park” scenario, in which revenue would be generated through nature-driven tourism, allowing local people living inside the park to continue using its resources in a sustainable way.

But the report warned that this scenario would require the support of international donors, at a time when their programmes had not been renewed due to “lack of interest”.

Developers descend

With the promise of sustainable tourism starting to fade, commercial tourism stepped in.

In June 2008, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed decrees granting concessions to two companies – Yeejia, and Evergreen Success & Asia Resort Development.

Yeejia was given rights over 3,300 hectares of the park, an area they named Golden Silver Bay. When reporters visited the concession in January 2021, they found around a dozen half-built hotel-sized structures, most flanked by Cambodian guards. Outside one of them, a sign reads Qin Yue Ream National Coast in both Khmer and Chinese characters. Further in, patches of newly-paved road led to clearings where rows of identical off-white cottages stood out against the raw, red earth. Another road opened out onto a fresh construction site, where excavators were levelling a hillside, the roots of the remaining trees dangling over the manmade cliffs.

The other company, Evergreen Success & Asia Resort Development, was given a concession of 2,377 hectares.

Evergreen Success is tied to Hun To, a nephew of the prime minister, who has been investigated by the Australian authorities in connection with drug smuggling and money laundering. According to a 2012 report in The Age newspaper, To was of interest to Operation Illipango, an Australian investigation into heroin concealed in Cambodian timber shipments. Plans to arrest To were derailed when the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh cancelled his travel visa.

Powerful connections

To has since become a co-director of the Lixin Group, a Taiwanese construction and property company that has already developed a hotel in Sihanoukville under the US-based brand Wyndham.

Lixin is heavily promoting its “New City” development in Ream National Park. An advertisement on the resort’s WeChat channel from September emphasised the eco-tourism side of the project. But plans for the resort include massive developments inside the park, from a golf resort and a horse racing track to casinos and hotels, all flanked by mangroves.

Yeejia’s rise in Cambodia has also depended on elite contacts. Company chair Fu Xianting’s resumé includes time in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and then in state-owned companies, one of which brought him to Cambodia for a conference on agricultural machinery and light manufacturing.

According to a 2016 Financial Times investigation, Cambodia’s Council of Ministers revoked Fu’s concession in Ream after concerns about forest clearance from environmental groups. But Fu, who has close personal ties to Hun Sen, met with the Cambodian leader and obtained his support for continued development.

Yeejia’s development plans for Golden Silver Bay range from casinos and luxury hotels to a conference centre and medical rehabilitation facilities. Its WeChat social media presence shows it is advertising to Chinese developers seeking a slice of Cambodia, as well as to tourists. In November, Yeejia held a small ground-breaking ceremony with Zhonghai Tianhong Real Estate (Cambodia), which has leased 4 hectares of land from the developer on a 99-year lease – the same timespan as Yeejia’s 2008 concession within the park. This is despite the fact that, according to Cambodian law, concessions cannot be sold to another company without a new contract being drawn up with the government.

Neither Yeejia nor Lixin would respond to requests for comment from China Dialogue.

Ongoing destruction

Beyond the bulldozers currently clearing land in the name of tourism, illegal logging for timber has continued in Ream. Chantha, the community activist, says the state-employed park rangers conduct frequent patrols, but will release loggers who pay them. Chantha has accompanied the patrols and claims to have witnessed bribe-taking.

According to the 2001 de Lopez report, about half of rural households inside the park engaged in illegal logging in the past. Chantha and other villagers admit to cutting trees for their own use before Yeejia officials stopped them.

But things are different now. “The Ministry of Environment officials blame the community for deforestation, but it’s not us,” he says. “It’s someone outside and hired by some oknha (tycoons) or rich businessman to come clear land here.”

Meanwhile, the coast of Ream and the rest of Preah Sihanouk province is also under threat. Ouk Vibol, director of conservation in Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration, says overfishing is a significant challenge, with trawlers scooping up whatever fish they can find, destroying seagrass beds in the process. The loss of mangroves due to the park’s tourism developments is also having a big impact on fish stocks, says Ouk.

“If you destroy one habitat, there are real negative impacts on the species that move from one habitat to another.”

Just outside the national park, a little-known Chinese–Cambodian company, Canopy Sands Development, has undertaken a massive coastal reclamation project on 427 hectares granted by the Cambodian government. The company was formed one month before it received the land. Its shareholders also chair powerful companies in Cambodia, including Prince Group, whose China-born director, Chen Zhi, has obtained Cambodian citizenship through his investments.

This and other developments along the coast, which once boasted waters teeming with lucrative squid, crab and fish, have changed local fishers’ lives.

Docking just north of the Canopy Sands development, 27 year old Chan Ra says he has to be very careful where he drops his fishing lines. The traditional gear he uses to catch squid is made with large shells strung out along a line. The squid nestle into the shells for shelter without the need for bait. The shells are durable but expensive and are often damaged by the sand-dredging boats filling the Canopy Sands area, says Ra. There are still some squid to be found close to the shore, but the fisher says he has to travel further to catch crabs.

Ra lives mostly on his boat these days, because another company has been reclaiming land from the sea on the bay where he used to live. “Before we could reach home by boat, but now they’re filling it with land,” he says.

Ra has had to move three times due to development projects. Like many local people, he built a home without procuring an official land title – a requirement that was seldom enforced until land prices began to climb.

Nowhere is safe

32 year old Nam Then runs a small shop selling sundries on a hillside a couple of kilometres from the entrance to Yeejia’s concession. He has not been directly impacted by the long-running dispute between local people and the Chinese company, whose concession overlaps their customary land. But he shares his neighbours’ concerns and attends meetings about the issue at the Ream commune office.

“We share information around the community,” he says. “We are the same people who have the same affections. I am also living in one part of the community, just in a different area.”

In June last year, the government finally allocated land and promised titles to the three communities in the park affected by Yeejia’s concession. Details have yet to be worked out, however. Then keeps a plastic folder full of documents showing the outlines of plots. Some families are missing out, he says, but he and others are watching the process closely.

Then moved to his current home and shop in 2007 after Ream Naval Academy – part of a military branch that is caught up in controversies over Chinese versus US access – decided to expand into the land near where his family lived.

“Looking back at 2007, we didn’t have anything, the people were weak, information systems didn’t exist, and we were living in a military zone, so when you’re trying to protest, there was big pressure (on us),” he says.

The family’s current home is on the other side of the same mountain. They have remained relatively undisturbed since they moved, but, on a morning in late January, Then told reporters that much of the land facing his house had been cleared. He was not sure what for. When reporters passed his house again at dusk, a digger was forging a new road around the mountain, leading back to the naval academy.

When he first moved in, Then recalls: “It was all forest, huge forest, there wasn’t any road yet.” Now, for the villagers of Ream “it’s very difficult, because the houses are all on company land.”

 

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