The Dara Sakor Seashore Resort in southern Cambodia, a grandiose project by a Chinese company to create a self-contained tourist city, remains largely unfinished 15 years after its inception. This venture, often described as a Chinese colony, envisions a tourist city complete with an international airport, deep-sea port, power stations, hospitals, casinos, and luxury villas.
The airport remains incomplete, and a single casino stands isolated near the sea, surrounded by an unfinished road and construction sites. The resort’s tourism business has barely taken off, but it has already inflicted significant harm on the local environment and the thousands of people residing there.
China’s economic influence in Cambodia has grown significantly, with China providing half of all direct investment and the majority of foreign aid. Cambodia is an enthusiastic participant in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s global infrastructure expansion strategy. While some Chinese investments have proven beneficial, a substantial portion has been speculative, hastily executed, and poorly planned.
Sihanoukville, a coastal town across the bay from Dara Sakor, transformed into a massive construction zone catering to Chinese demand for casinos within a few years. This led to a surge in crime and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a collapse of the gambling economy, leaving the town littered with half-finished, vacant tower blocks. Similar challenges may confront Dara Sakor.
The development model embraced by Cambodia’s former Prime Minister Hun Sen, characterized by secrecy and minimal consultation, is reflected in projects like Dara Sakor. Chinese companies involved in these projects provide limited information about themselves, and some have questionable reputations. This approach has also raised suspicions about China’s broader intentions in this region of Cambodia.
Hun Sen, known as a self-styled strongman, favored large-scale development projects to accelerate economic growth. However, much of this growth was achieved by granting generous concessions, including vast land parcels, to favored individuals and foreign companies.
Sebastian Strangio, an expert on Cambodia, points out the lack of institutional oversight in this system, stating that it relies on keeping powerful figures satisfied. The long-term sustainability of such development models and their potential vulnerability to global economic fluctuations, like the Chinese real estate market, raise concerns about Cambodia’s future development path.