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Tensions dampen border trade, tourism


July 27, 2008

Thai-Cambodian Temple Feud:
Tensions dampen border trade, tourism

Trade in the key Thai district of Aranyaprathet bordering Cambodia remained sluggish Saturday amid rumours that Cambodian traders were refusing to accept the Thai currency, the baht, due to fears that tensions along the border over regarding a disputed zone adjacent to an ancient temple could escalate, reported Thai News Agency (TNA).

Trade and tourism revenues in Thailand's Si Sa Ket province has plummeted 10 percent following the ongoing dispute over an area which both Cambodia and Thailand claim, adjacent to an ancient temple atop a promontory at the poorly defined Thai-Cambodian border, TNA quoted a senior trade official as saying Saturday.

Sriwan Kiatsuranond, chairman of the Si Sa Ket Chamber of Commerce, said there were around one thousand tourist daily visiting Preah Vihear temple before the standoff, but the authorities on both sides of the disputed area have closed off access even before that happened, the official said, many tourists had canceled their trips for fear of their safety. Souvenir traders also lost income, according to Sriwan.

Some Bt4-5 million generated by tourists visiting the temple between January-May had dropped significantly, he said. Because of the military standoff and tensions in the border area where the 11th century temple stands, tourists have now stopped visiting the temple as Thai and Cambodian soldiers sealed off the border, he said.

The Si Sa Ket Chamber of Commerce has joined with banks and tourism operators in the province to submit a letter to the Thai-Cambodian General Border Committee asking the group to resolve the border problem.

The provincial organisations hope that Monday's meeting between the foreign ministers of both countries will be able to resolve tensions along the border.

Both countries have insisted on exclusive sovereignty over the 4.6-square-kilometer area of the overlapping zone adjacent to Preah Vihear temple which was awarded to Cambodia in 1962 and listed as a World Heritage site by Unesco earlier this month.

Fewer than half the normal number of Cambodian traders crossed into Thailand's normally lively Aranyaprathet market in an atmosphere or inactivity, while the volume of Thai tourists visiting Cambodia's 12th-century Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom tumbled to less than 100 from about 1,000 persons during prior weekends.

Cambodian traders with a sense of nationalism refused to accept the baht at all, saying they preferred the Cambodian currency, the riel, after selling their wares at the Aranyaprathet market.

A Cambodian market vendor, a woman who crosses the border every day, said Cambodian traders were being searched by motorcycle-taxi drivers upon returning to Cambodia's Poi Pet town, at the other end of the short bridge, were scolded and told that they did not love the nation if Thai currency was found inside their wallets.

Thailand's Burapha Task Force stationed along in the border area said Cambodian traders still used the Thai baht in daily trade, except for small vendors who preferred the riel out of concerns that Thailand would close the border.

Earlier on Friday, Cambodian daily Phnom Penh Post reported that Cambodians had begun boycotting products from Thailand amid escalating anger throughout the country over the standoff involving Thai troops near Preah Vihear temple.

The daily quoted Cambodia Association of Travel Agents president Ho Vandy as saying that Cambodian travelers are boycotting travel to Thailand following rising tensions between the two nations over the military standoff at Preah Vihear, said.

Cambodians spend millions of dollars a year traveling to Bangkok for medical treatment or go shopping, but with a boycott “Thailand will lose a large amount of this,” said Eurasie Travel managing director Moeung Sonn.

The feeling appears to be mutual. About 1,000 Thais have cancelled their visits to the “famous Angkor Wat ruins,” the Bangkok Post wrote on July 14, since the ownership dispute erupted over territory around Preah Vihear temple.

Diethelm Travel Siem Reap manager Choup Lorn was quoted as telling the Bangkok daily, “Thai tour guides here in Siem Reap say there are not too many Thai tourists now because of recent developments.”

But Cambodian Minister of Tourism Thong Khon was predicting that the current tension between Thailand and Cambodia would have little long-term negative impact on tourism.

Siem Reap tour operators were additionally hopeful that, once the political controversy surrounding Preah Vihear subsides, the temple’s designation as a Unesco World Heritage site would open a new tourism frontier for them, via Siem Reap.

Tourism to the temple through Siem Reap was currently negligible, however, admitted Annetta Graf, manager of the Siem Reap office of Destination Asia (Cambodia) Ltd.

“We have maybe three requests a year for people to go there by helicopter,” Graf said. “We do not recommend that our clients go there overland at the moment.”

But if infrastructure were upgraded, the site could be an important add-on to the Siem Reap travel experience, encouraging tourists to extend their stay, she said.

“In the future, there is really big potential for trips to Preah Vihear and other nearby temples,” said Graf.

Sem Fousing, outbound operations supervisor of Exotissimo Travel Cambodia, said Exotissimo was waiting for the politics surrounding the Preah Vihear issue to die down before firming up plans to send tourists to the region.

“We don’t focus on the area at the moment because of the politics... But it is on our proposal for next year and it will be part of our new adventure department so that people can trek as well as visit the temple.”

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