The land border crossing from Thailand to Cambodia is, in a word, challenging. But far more challenging is the person whose job it is to change the perception of “Scambodia” into one that is more tourist friendly. Which brings me to public relations, or more accurately, how PR can only do so much.
Tourism is a huge industry in Cambodia, and no wonder, since it has some really great things to see and things are generally inexpensive. However, part of the reason things are so cheap is that people are paid very little for their work. Wages are very low, and poverty is quite high. In our pre-trip research, we discovered that one of the things Cambodia’s government is trying to do to change that is to increase the wages at garment factories, and start to bill itself as the place to go for sustainable goods, not just cheap ones. A good first move. But given how much poverty the typical tourist sees while traveling here, and how hard you are hit up by the people working in and around Angkor Wat selling cheap goods, there is a lot more work to be done.
Which brings me to the border crossing. When you cross the border into Cambodia, you encounter a great number of government employees. Some are helpful, others are not. But what they all are is poorly paid. Unfortunately, those employees are the first Cambodians tourists encounter, and they create an atmosphere for you upon arrival that can be either great or terrible. It is therefore in the best interest of the government as a whole that those border employees feel they have job security and fair wages. Tourists should feel welcomed by them, not scammed or lied to.
While we were crossing, we noticed a number of signs touting the appreciation Cambodians have for tourists, with some version of the message “Tourism creates jobs and improves Cambodia,” all over the place. Unfortunately, given the length of our experience with the crossing and the general feeling of being fleeced by everyone around us, including government officials, that message fell flat on its face.
Since the message was written with Khmer on top, English below, we assumed the message was for Cambodians, not as much for tourists. Otherwise, frankly, it could have said, “Thank you for being a tourist.” But if the sign was meant for natives, it was certainly not being heeded.
PR needs to be accompanied by serious efforts to change an organization. Otherwise, by saying one thing and doing another, you are only making matters worse. So if Cambodia wants tourists to feel appreciated, to feel the warm embrace of the Cambodian people, they should put their money – tourist money – where their mouths are. Clean up the border, invest in tourism infrastructure, and battle the kickback culture. Then we could all start enjoying our Cambodian visits a little sooner, and with a lot less worry.