Most of the 2 million tourists that flow through Siem Reap each year probably get the view that the town is fairly affluent and that the tourist industry is benefiting the local economy. This is not necessarily the case, so I thought I would write a few posts about the city (Krong Siem Reap) and the surrounding Siem Reap Province.
The city itself has a population of around 230,000 which makes it a bit smaller than the city of Southampton. However, during peak season the tourists can triple this population, making the city (especially the downtown area) feel extremely crowded. Around 95% of Siem Reap’s population is ethnic Khmer, making it pretty homogeneous. The other ethnic minorities in the city and the area are mainly Vietnamese (with Vietnamese floating villages on the Tonle Sap), Cham (a Muslim minority in Cambodia) and Chinese. Often the communities are very separate. The Vietnamese children that attend my school may not speak Khmer, and the Cham can be very suspicious of those outside their community (they have suffered persecution, and were a particular target during the Khmer Rouge years).
Due to the Khmer Rouge regime, the population is very young. Only 5% of the population is above 60 years of age (in Southampton it is about 17%). Also, the life expectancy in Cambodia is far lower (an average of 63 years, compared to 81.5 in the UK).
This tourist industry provides the main bulk of the city’s employment, with estimates suggesting it could provide 50% of employment.
Millions of dollars flood into the city and the surrounding area, with tourists visiting the Tonle Sap Lake, Phnom Kulen and the Angkor area. So, this money is probably benefiting the locals, right? Well, no. The starting salary for a hotel worker is about $70-$100 a month, whereas work in the garment industry is about $140 a month. Furthermore, due to the seasonal nature of the tourist industry, this means jobs for those who support the industry (such as tuk tuk drivers) can be very intermittent.
Siem Reap Province remains one of the poorest provinces, with around 45% of the population below the poverty line. In the surrounding rural areas, this means they are learning less than $0.75 (or 50p) a day. A lot of the province’s population has no access to clean water (35%) and is not on the national electricity grid (80%).
Despite the huge hotels, the bars, the restaurants, cinema, Burlesque theatre and supermarkets, Siem Reap is still a poor place. Obviously, my line of work sees some of this as a fact. When you see children scrambling to pick rice grains out of the dust because the bag split, you realise that poverty is a daily reality.
(So where does the money go? I’ll write about this in more detail later, but here’s a spoiler: abroad.)