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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Flying to Cambodia: A $1 Billion Aerotropolis

BY Jenara NerenbergToday
The New Siem Reap International Airport is breaking ground next year, backed by South Koreans.

How do you say "aerotropolis" in Khmer? Looks like we're about to find out.

Cambodia will begin construction on its very own airport city next year--the New Siem Reap International Airport, with an adjacent special economic zone, dry port, and 15.4 square mile city--to capitalize on increasing tourist numbers from neighboring countries and increasing foreign investment interest.

The airport will be completed in five and a half years at a cost of $1 billion and the contracted South Korean-Cambodian joint venture, NSRIA Co. Ltd., will operate it for 65 years. The airport, 25 miles east of Angkor Wat, will accommodate 747s, allowing direct flights to arrive from Europe and North America.

An airport city such as Cambodia's fits the label of an aerotropolis--a planned city with an airport as its central node and related infrastructure, businesses, and working families surrounding it. An Aerotropolis thus becomes an engine of local economic development, something Cambodia is desperately in need of.

"It doesn't matter how much they spend on the project, or how much expertise the South Korean investors bring to bear. What matters is how many flights a day the airport has, and to where," says Fast Company contributor and author of the forthcoming book, Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next, Greg Lindsay.

"There's a saying that 'airlines don't serve airports; they serve markets,' meaning they want to go where passengers already are," says Lindsay. "In this case, the tourist draw of Angkor Wat could be a big help and considering the United Nations' World Tourism Organization expects China to have 100 million outbound tourists a year by 2020, Cambodia is probably trying to snag a few million."

Cambodia hopes that its very own aerotropolis will help spur local economic development, via foreign investment and the appeal of cheap labor. But the question remains whether there will be enough numbers flying in and out of the country. This year the country saw 2.3 million visitors, but the annual capacity of the new airport will be 15 million, leaving a huge gap to be filled. Where will all the tourists and foreign investors come from?

"With enough flights and enough connectivity, anything is possible," Lindsay tells Fast Company. "The likely model for Cambodia's aerotropolis is Subic Bay in the Philippines, which transformed the former U.S. Navy base into a fairly large high-tech manufacturing zone in the 1990s after FedEx opened its pan-Asian hub there."

As Cambodia is increasingly in competition with its neighbors--namely Vietnam, as well as China, where the first Kashgar-Pakistan cargo flight was just launched this week--it's likely that the country wants to secure its current standing among tourists and its future standing in the realm of trade.

"Vietnam is building its own massive new international airport outside Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok tried to build its own aerotropolis in 2006, only to be derailed by political turmoil," Lindsay points out. "Can Cambodia succeed in winning a piece for themselves? Who knows, but they're certainly willing to try."

Follow me, Jenara Nerenberg, on Twitter.

[Image courtesy of Greg Lindsay, from his forthcoming book, Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next

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The ugly Indian visits serene and gentle Cambodia

Each time I return to India after a longer-than-brief spell abroad I want to kiss the soil. This land of ours has given birth to some of the world’s greatest thinkers and religions.

Not to forget the soul-satisfying daal-chaval and roti. But the same precious soil has also given birth to the un-biodegradable caste system. Not even conversion to another religion completely uproots it.

Nor does migration to other continents: I have come across several Goan Catholics or Syrian Christians who boast about their Brahmin ancestry. Nor does death: some cemeteries in India are reserved for Brahmin converts to Christianity.

Normally, I don’t think about such matters. But I have just returned from a blissful week in Cambodia. Siem Reap, located in the north-western part of the country, is the gateway to the millennium-old famed Angkor temples of the ancient Khmer Empire.

The awe-inspiring Angkor Wat, spread over 240 hectares and surrounded by a beautiful moat, is the largest religious monument in the world. Originally known as Vrah Vishnulok — the sacred abode of Lord Vishnu — it was a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu by Khmer king Suryavarman II in the first half of the 12th century.

The eight-armed statue of Vishnu that that once stood in the central shrine was probably moved to the outer gallery when Buddhism became the predominant religion towards the end of the 12th century. King Jayavarman VII, a convert to the Mahayana Buddhist sect, erected Buddhist shrines in Angkor and many Hindu shrines were transformed into Buddhist ones.

But I digress; the point I want to make is that casteism appears to be absent here — to an uninformed eye like mine. And this, despite the brief resurgence of Hinduism in the 13th century. Perhaps, it was offloaded during the transition from Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism later in the century: over 90% of the Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists.

Brought to this region from what is now Sri Lanka, this tradition went against the royal elitism of the Angkor kings, Hindus and Buddhists alike.

There are only two kinds of Cambodians today according to our young and wise — and inordinately courteous — driver: the rich and poor.

Who are the rich? “Government servants,” pat came the answer, “there is so much corruption”. Well, they might have exorcised the caste system to a great extent but corruption is something the Cambodians still share with India.

What we don’t share, alas, is the prevalent gentleness of the people in this lush, green temple-dotted land. God knows this poor country has had more than its share of suffering: the genocide and devastation caused by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge lie just beneath the surface.

Actually, on it as well: museums recount unimaginably horrific evidence of the killing fields.

Yet, you see little but the serene smiles and hear the ubiquitous “sorry” (almost as omnipresent as hello or thank you). Even the pesky, insistent tuk tuk valas (motorcycle-driven autorickshaws) are not aggressive. Nor are the salesmen and women with whom you have to bargain incessantly.

Actually, I caught myself more than once bargaining too aggressively — or worse ticking off a waiter in a restaurant who had brought the wrong order. I was becoming the Ugly Indian.

Fortunately, towards the end of our stay I toned down the aggression and found myself saying “sorry” as frequently as the people of Siem Reap.
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