TUK-TUK drivers in Cambodia are missing out on the benefits of increasing tourism in the country, according to a research project funded by the Scottish Funding Council’s Global Challenges Research Fund.

Tourism in Siem Reap, Cambodia, has grown considerably since the early 1990s, when it was perhaps mainly seen as one of the checkpoints on the backpacker Southeast Asia route.

Vastly increased air links and extensive development of hotels within the city have seen tourist numbers and related revenue rise significantly in recent years.

The one constant, though, has been the reason for tourist interest in the city. The nearby Angkor Temples are what draws tourists in ever growing numbers. There is little doubt that in economic terms, tourism in the city is very much a success story.

However, as with many similar examples around the world, there is debate as to the equitability of these economic benefits.

At first glance, tuk-tuk drivers should be among the main beneficiaries of the huge increase in tourist numbers (The Cambodian Hotel Association puts international tourist numbers to Siem Reap at 1.3 million for the first six months of 2018; compared to 1.05m for the same period in 2017). These drivers are very much in the front line of the tourism industry, are extremely visible and a trip in a tuk-tuk is seen by many tourists as an iconic experience to be enjoyed while in Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately for many of the tuk-tuk drivers, the current situation is more complex and concerning. Every one of the 20 drivers spoken to for this article insisted that it was now becoming more difficult to find clients on a regular day-to-day basis.

This is partly explained by the increasing number of unskilled workers who have been attracted to the city for the potential money-making opportunities as a tuk- tuk driver, with a current estimate of 6000 tuk-tuk drivers in the city.

However, the more significant reason appears to be one of demographics.

The most obvious development in Cambodian tourism has been the significant increase in Chinese tourists. According to the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism, 2017 saw just over one million Chinese leisure tourists visit the country, compared to only 138,000 in 2010. This growth is part of a wider Cambodian strategy of being “China Ready”, which has involved a range of heavy Chinese investment across Cambodian industry. A significant majority still travel as part of organised tour groups, including local pre-packaged bus travel to sites such as the Angkor Temples. There is little need or desire among these tourists to hire a tuk-tuk for any duration.

A more established conundrum for tuk- tuk drivers is the decision to be fully independent or to have a relationship with a hotel or tour group. There was debate among the drivers about the most favourable option, with points made regarding the degree of freedom within each option, the likelihood of securing clients, the working hours and the financial outcomes of each.

For many it came down to personal lifestyle choices; for example, Sopanha wished to spend time with his young family and so was happy to be fully independent, although he recognised this made his income more precarious. Several other drivers suggested a relationship with a hotel removed the pressure of seeking out clients personally, and they had particular concerns over their lack of foreign language ability and general confidence required for such a tactic.

The sheer increase of drivers in the city has obviously made conditions for the independent driver more challenging than ever before.

However, the decision to enter agreement with a hotel or tour group is not without its problems. The driver is not actually employed by the hotel, so is not guaranteed work or pay. The driver has to pay a monthly fee to the hotel or tour operator in order to have access to potential clients. The figure quoted ranged from $40 to $60 a month. Drivers also criticised the practice of hotels taking a significant proportion of the client payment as a commission or booking fee. Drivers estimated they actually received around 50% of what the client paid.

Another recent development which is making life more difficult for tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap is the emergence of a system similar to a tuk-tuk Uber.

Starting in Singapore, but now operating across the region, Grab is one of several competing companies offering ride-hailing apps, through modern versions of tuk-tuks.

This new competition was highlighted by drivers as the one they feared the most.

One tuk-tuk driver, Kimsan, said that whereas traditional tuk-tuks were once an exciting, novel part of the overall experience, “Grab” vehicles were now seen as the novel option.

Another driver, Khemara, summed up the views of many when he suggested: “I think there will be no more tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap within two years.”

The changing tourism environment has certainly shaken up the existing tuk-tuk industry in Siem Reap. Tourist demographic changes, new disrupter competition, oversupply of drivers and unequitable industry relationships have culminated in the current challenges facing this informal workforce.

However, there is still a demand for tuk-tuks, and it is to be hoped that the industry and its problems are recognised and supported long before Khemara’s fears coming to pass.

Craig Leith is senior lecturer and subject leader in Hospitality, Tourism & Events at Robert Gordon University.

Due to the original conditions of the research, all names within have been changed

Interview translation provided by Pheaktra Kong of Siem Reap Translation Services