By Juarawee Kittisilpa and Clare Baldwin
SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia (Reuters) – An influx of Chinese that some Cambodians resented for bringing noise, dust and chaos to the port of Sihanoukville, is the cause of more pain now that it has gone into reverse.
The new coronavirus has meant yet another setback for Sihanoukville after the government last year banned the online gambling that had helped fuel the spectacular growth of a once listless city into a major Chinese population center.
“Now things are calm and in order, unlike before, but it is bad for businesses like mine,” said tuk-tuk driver Kwan Samhay, 55, as he cruised the streets looking for passengers. “There are no Chinese tourists riding on my tuk-tuk anymore.”
More than any city in Southeast Asia, Sihanoukville exemplified China’s growing regional presence and the complexity of economic, political and personal ties that have sprung up.
Touted on the one hand as an important port and industrial center for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the biggest driving force for Chinese investment had been into casinos – and most of all into online gambling.
That stopped last year, when Cambodia banned the online casinos under pressure from Beijing – driving out tens of thousands of Chinese who had moved to the city. Before that an estimated 80,000 Chinese lived in Sihanoukville, roughly on a par with the Cambodian population.
Sihanoukville’s remaining casinos had continued to draw a steady stream of Chinese customers and real estate developments had brought investors looking for an exotic opportunity.
But that has almost stopped now that travelers are unable to leave China because of restrictions over the coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 1,700 people, mostly in China.
Sihanoukville has had its own virus scare – recording the only case in Cambodia, but also hosting the cruise ship MS Westerdam from which one passenger has tested positive for the virus.
“Since the Chinese left and then the coronavirus outbreak started, the crowd in this city is very much different from before, it is now so quiet,” said Kwan Samhay.
Across the city, where provincial authorities reported in mid-2019 that more than 90 percent of businesses were Chinese owned, Chinese characters are peeling from the windows of abandoned restaurants, supermarkets and hairdressers.
Casinos that relied entirely on online gambling are shuttered. Block after block of 12-storey buildings stand empty but for the desks where online casino workers used to contact customers across China.
Local authorities say at least 7,000 Cambodians have lost their jobs since the ban on online gambling last August.
For some in the Chinese business community, the ban on online gambling is a good thing and does not spell the end of the investment in the city, which also hosts a Chinese-run industrial zone and might have oil offshore.
“Offline casinos will continue to operate, but because of the flow of people, business is temporarily bad,” said Zheng Longming, who has worked in Cambodia for more than 12 years.
“Sihanoukville cannot rely on online gambling to increase GDP or fiscal revenue… So I think this change is positive.”
The departure of so many people – nobody has a precise estimate – has reduced the strain on the city as authorities try to pave roads and fit sewer systems that had been overwhelmed by the new arrivals.
While work has stopped on many buildings and cranes spike idly from half built shells, elsewhere the construction continues.
For Kwan Samhay, the return of the Chinese cannot come soon enough. The grandfather who has been driving a tuk-tuk for more than 25 years used to get at least 10 customers a day, bringing in as much as $80. Now he scrapes by.
“I want the Chinese and other foreigners to come back so that it is good for my earnings,” he said. “If they do not come then we will face a crisis.”
(Additional reporting and writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Neil Fullick)