A large bus packed with tourists parked outside Phnom Penh’s National Museum, on the tree-lined Street 178, where a row of small art and handicrafts shops eagerly awaited potential customers.
The street, as well as Street 240—further south and more upmarket—rode a wave of interest in handmade, local handicrafts five to 10 years ago to set up dainty boutiques and a network of craftsmen and women, touting authenticity and the uplifting of livelihoods.
But the recent bus full of tourists on Street 178 wasn’t interested. The passengers exited the bus one by one, saw the museum and hopped back on board.
The changing makeup of tourists in Cambodia has caused a shift in the souvenir business: Handicrafts are on the decline, while cheap, mass-produced goodies are taking over.
“It’s been a tough year, I won’t lie,” said Marianne Waller, the co-owner of Trunkh, a shop near the National Museum that sold clothes, gifts, homeware and other miscellany.
After operating in the capital for five years, Trunkh’s Phnom Penh branch has now closed shop, and the location has since become a massage parlor.
“The kind of tourist that comes to Cambodia has changed and they are less interested,” Ms. Waller said, explaining that it was one of the factors that led to the closure.
According to the Tourism Ministry, the number of total foreign visitors has grown from 2.9 to 4.8 million between 2011 and 2015.
But the market has swung from independent tourists to group travelers, the former’s share falling from 50 percent in 2011 to 23 percent in 2015.
Ms. Waller said the schedules and budgets of group tourists were a bad match with boutique handicrafts.
“A lot of them come on big package tours. They have very limited budgets, they get taken on big buses from an export shop to a market for half an hour, to a restaurant for half an hour, and then they are back on the bus and they fly to Siem Reap,” she said.
Several other shop owners backed Ms. Waller’s experience and observations.
“It is very silent these days. There are just no tourists so we cannot sell a lot,” said Lor Soley, the owner’s son at Chhay Hean, a family business specializing in Khmer paintings and statues on Street 178 that has been open since the early 2000s. “Many tourists just simply don’t want to spend money on these souvenirs anymore,” added Peang Sokha, owner of Watthan Artisans Cambodia, a social enterprise established in 2004 that has an outlet on Street 240.
Vincent Drouillard, CEO of Artisans Angkor, said a proliferation of shops in recent years had added to the difficulties caused by the changing habits of tourists.
There is little chance of competing on price. A handmade krama can cost about $5, more than triple a typical $1.50 machine-made counterpart, usually imported from Vietnam or China.
A locally-made 20 cm wooden Buddha statue can retail for $60, whereas a similar souvenir is half the price if imported.
In Siem Reap, the Angkor Handicraft Association is attempting to stem the tide by relaunching its “Seal of Authenticity” to mark locally produced products and their sellers.
“The idea is for shops to use the seal as a signage or promotional tool to prove they have local products on sale,” said Robert Rueda, the association’s adviser in charge of the new promotional campaign.
For Neha Bhardwha, 25, a Canadian student backpacking with her partner, it is difficult to justify an extra spend on local souvenirs: The couple travel on a combined budget of $40 to $50 a day.
“We’re buying it from a Cambodian,” Ms. Bhardwha said. “At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters to us is money rather than where it was made.”
That is not the case for Joel Lesoin, 68, a retiree and French tourist. He says he is willing to pay $200 to $500 for locally made handicrafts and paintings, with the hope of a renaissance in Cambodia art.
“It needs an added value, and this added value is its difference,” he said. “It is not only the fact that it is made here, it is that it brings a plus compared to a copy made in China or Vietnam.”
Commerce Ministry spokeswoman Soeng Sophary said shifting trends were simply the nature of the market.
“In recent years, even though the number of tourists have increased, their spending power has decreased because of the global crisis,” Ms. Sophary said.
“They still travel, but they can only travel low-budget, just to get to see the places.”
Independent tourists tend to be wealthier, while group tourists have typically chosen to travel with others to save costs, she said.
But even as one market fades and another rises, the change is not forever, she said.
“Everything will go through a transition,” Ms. Sophary said. “In the future, when the economy is recovered, their way of spending will also recover and become more generous. There is no indication of a permanent decrease, or a permanent increase.”
(Additional reporting by Thim Rachna)
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