The departure of Chinese nationals from Sihanoukville following the ban on online gambling and amid fear of a novel coronavirus outbreak in the Kingdom is becoming more apparent as Chinese-owned businesses closed their doors.
Prime Minister Hun Sen in August issued a directive banning all online and arcade gambling operations in the Kingdom to safeguard security and public order. The ban came into effect in January.
General Kirth Chantharith, director-general of the General Department of Immigration, said 200,000 Chinese nationals in the Kingdom mostly left Sihanoukville due to the ban.
According to the Preah Sihanouk provincial labour department yesterday, the departure was prompted by the closure of dozens of casinos in the city, leaving nearly 1,000 local workers jobless.
A walk through the city that was once known for its influx of Chinese investments will show shuttered restaurants, guesthouses, hotels, supermarkets and casinos.
Chinese nationals have also been less visible, while locals who depended on them for income are feeling the crunch.
“Before, there were a lot of Chinese people walking on the street, but now only a few have been spotted wearing facemasks,” Sok Sovanna, a tuk-tuk driver, said. “Our city is changing very fast. Before I could earn up to $25 per day from driving my tuk-tuk, but today I have only earned $2.25.”
“I can say that 80 to 90 percent of Chinese nationals left since the beginning of this year,” Mr Sovanna added. “We are concerned about this situation.”
He noted the rates of hotels and guesthouses have dropped by about double since the departure.
Yuv Khemara, director of the provincial labour department, told Khmer Times yesterday a survey by the department recorded only about 2,000 Chinese nationals with work permits live in the province.
“There are at least three reasons behind Chinese nationals leaving Sihanoukville,” Mr Khemara said. “The first is the ban on online gambling, the second is fear of a coronavirus outbreak and the third is ongoing road construction projects that may have disturbed them.”
“In 2019, there were 22,000 Chinese nationals who have work or business permits, but now there are only about 2,000.”
Mr Khemara said ongoing road constructions across the city have also prompted Chinese business owners to suspend operations.
“Some restaurants and shophouses have suspended operations,” he said. “They decided to do so because road construction companies are digging for sewer drains in front of businesses, which affects customers.”
“It has also affected hotels and casinos in the city,” Mr Khemara said. “They are suspending operations because of huge declines in income.”
In November, the government approved to spend $294 million for the construction of 34 roads in Sihanoukville. The project is ongoing.
Kuoch Chamroeun, Governor of Preah Sihanouk province, said 73 casinos running online and arcade gambling operations were forced to shut down after the ban took effect.
Kheang Phearom, a spokesman for Provincial Hall, said there have been big changes ever since many Chinese nationals left the city.
“In recent weeks, we have noted that our city is becoming quieter compared to the past because of the coronavirus fears […] and the ban on online gambling,” Mr Phearom said, adding there have been travel restrictions for Chinese nationals. “After the outbreak of the coronavirus, China advised its people to not travel – China restricted its own flights.”
“Regardless, we still welcomed Chinese nationals, but they just did not come,” he added. “This is happening globally, not just in Cambodia.”
Khun Tharo, programme manager with the Alliance of Labour and Human Rights, yesterday said the mass departure of Chinese nationals from Sihanoukville is a “crisis” for Cambodians who relied on Chinese income.
“I have noticed that since the Chinese left, property development has had less activity,” Mr Tharo said. “Those affected from this are not Chinese who are leaving, but Cambodians.”
He said many Cambodians took loans from banks or microfinance institutions to build accommodations for Chinese nationals.
“Our concern is that when there aren’t many businesses operating and the hiring of labourers will decline,” Mr Tharo said. “What will the unemployed Cambodians do next?”
Mr Khemara said ever since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus was recorded earlier this year, Chinese nationals have been gradually returning to China.
“Before the Lunar New Year, many Chinese businesspeople left for their homeland, but we have not seen them return because of the COVID-19,” he said.
“Two factories have also suspended operations due to raw material disruptions from China because of COVID-19,” Mr Khemara said. “They have also suspended their workers.”
He said many people in Sihanoukville are hoping Chinese nationals will return to the city.
“We hope they will return by July or August this year when the road constructions are done,” Mr Khemara said.