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Friday, May 20, 2011

BD set to emerge as the fastest growing apparel exporter to USA

Bangladesh is set to emerge as the fastest growing clothing supplier to the US market in 2011, with Cambodia closely following it, according to a global market report.

The US apparel imports from Bangladesh so far in 2011 rose, in value terms, by 39 per cent. The exports of apparel by Cambodia to the USA witnessed a 31 per cent growth, in value terms during the some period, turning out to be the second fastest growing supplier in 2011. El Salvador and Honduras follow Cambodia with their apparel export growth to the USA being 23 per cent and 19 per cent respectively.

The report also said products from Bangladesh, Cambodia, El Salvador and Honduras -- along with Pakistan -- were the cheapest among the USA's leading 10 clothing suppliers' in 2010. Their success reflects the fact that the US buyers continued to seek low-cost supplies as the recovery of the US economy still remains tentative.

The information was revealed in the Trade and Trade Policy: The US Clothing Import Market, published in the latest issue of Global Apparel Markets by the UK-based business information company, Textiles Intelligence.

Admitting the fact, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) president Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin told the FE Friday the confidence of the US buyers in Bangladesh and its apparel products "is growing".

"We have already proved our worth showing that we can do. We are performing better than Cambodia or China," he added.

A BGMEA source said 58 per cent of the country's total apparel export goes to the market in Europe, 34 per cent, to the USA and the rest, to the other parts of the world.

The Textile Intelligence report said growth in the case of El Salvador was slower so far in 2011 than in 2010 and in the case of Honduras it remained the same, indicating that major buyers are placing bigger orders with manufacturers in Asia as consumer-confidence returns.

The overall ready-made garments (RMG) export by Bangladesh in the first ten months of fiscal 2010-11 grew by 42 per cent against the corresponding period of the previous fiscal, coming to around US$ 17 billion.

"We expect to cross the target by touching about $18 billion after the June closing," Nasir Uddin Chowdhury, the first vice-president of BGMEA told the FE.

He said, "It's true that Bangladesh is the fastest growing supplier to the US apparel market, but it could be more if a few problems were addressed to bring more dynamism to the sector."

"In Bangladesh, there are some problems, which Cambodia does not have. The major problem in the sector is energy -- power and gas in particular. Also both the Dhaka-Chittagong highway and capability of railway as well as efficiency of Chittagong port should be improved," he added.

According to a recent statement by BGMEA that was placed to the government, the country's export-oriented garments sector is hard hit by shortage of power and gas.

The association leaders stated that the sector requires about 710 megawatts (mw) of power every day. But the RMG industries have been facing an average of five hours' load shedding per day.

Among other elements, Mr Nasir said there is a shortage of skilled workers. At present, the sector suffers from a 25 per cent shortage of adequately trained or skilled workers.

"In the absence of the right quality of manpower, the garments sector is heavily dependent on foreign technicians. Also productivity is compromised for a lack of an adequate number of technical people," he added.

At present, the total number of garments workers in the country stands at approximately 3.5 million. Manufacturers say productivity in the garments factories is not improving because of the low skill of the workers.

The country lacks training institutes to produce an adequate number of technical people. The supply of manpower in the sector is still inadequate, with its demand for quality human resources swelling to meet the needs for enhanced production capacities and more factory units, the apparel makers said.

The flow of orders from international buyers is increasing rapidly as production costs in China have climbed sharply. Work orders from international buyers are also rising as the country now enjoys duty-free, quota-free (DFQF) market access under liberalised rules of origin criteria in the European Union (EU) member-countries.

All the four countries mentioned earlier increased their product prices in the first two months of 2011 -- and so did their competitors, in response to the recent surge in raw material prices. There was an increase in the average price of US clothing imports as a whole, after price falls in the previous four years, the report said.
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Cambodia’s up-and-coming seaside towns

By Dustin Roasa, Friday

As the sun sank over the tree-lined Kampong Bay River, Kampot, a town on Cambodia’s southern coast, stirred to life. The locals, who’d spent much of the day hiding from the heat in their homes and shaded alleys, emerged into the atmospheric streets, where sun-stained, mustard-colored French colonial shop houses provide the backdrop to the rhythms of daily life.

Old men with fedoras and graying sideburns gathered at a corner cafe to play chess, triumphantly thwacking hand-carved pieces against thick wooden boards. Small groups of boys fished on the banks of the river with homemade bamboo poles, while groups of teenagers with mussed and shaggy haircuts and wearing glittery T-shirts yelled “Hello!” and giggled at strolling tourists, who are a small but growing presence in this largely unexplored corner of Southeast Asia.

My wife and I had come here to escape the grit and bustle of Phnom Penh, where we live, and to show my visiting mother-in-law a slice of authentic provincial life. With crumbling historic architecture, largely unspoiled countryside and specialty regional cuisine, Kampot and Kep, seaside towns separated by a 30-minute car ride, are unlike anyplace else in Cambodia.

Although tourism has taken off in the past decade — for much of the 1980s and ’90s, the area was off limits due to the presence of the Khmer Rouge — the two towns have avoided the dizzying and sometimes tacky growth of places like Siem Reap, where busloads of visitors swarm the ancient Angkor temples, and Sihanoukville, which caters to backpackers looking for a cheap alternative to coastal Thailand.

Instead of mega resorts and budget dives, Kampot and Kep have attracted a smattering of boutique hotels, bars and restaurants that draw on the area’s history as a stylish retreat in the last century, when the French and Khmer elite spent weekends here soaking up the Riviera-like vibe.

Now, a new wave of expats and tourists is discovering the place. Ben O’Reilly, an Irishman who runs Mea Culpa, a guesthouse and wood-fired pizza restaurant set in a shady garden in Kampot, arrived as a tourist in 2004 and never left. “It stole my heart,” he said. “The stunning beauty of the people and the area makes it stand out unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.”

A large part of the area’s appeal is its time-capsule quality: While much of Southeast Asia has been eager to demolish remnants of the past and modernize, Kampot and Kep have preserved a century of Cambodian history in their streets and surrounding hills. As we rode into Kampot with our taxi driver, a 56-year-old local named Eav, we watched the past flash by through the windows of his Toyota Camry.

There, on the left side of the road just outside town, Eav pointed out a salt plant built by the Khmer Rouge. “They exported salt to the Chinese in exchange for arms,” Eav said. Farther in was the columned and pleasingly dilapidated governor’s mansion, a symbol of colonial power, and its necessary counterpart, the French-built prison, which is still in use. Next came the Chinese school with its elegantly curved roof, a reminder of the sizable influence of the entrenched Chinese-Cambodian community here.

“The people here are proud of these buildings, and we want to keep them,” said Eav. “The local authorities are doing their best to preserve them.” So, too, are the entrepreneurs who have come here, many of whom have restored old villas and shop houses.

One such business is Epic Arts Cafe, a nonprofit that employs people with disabilities, where we had coffee and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. After a stroll through the streets surrounding the abandoned market at the center of town, we reserved seats on a boat trip down the Kampong Bay River and into the Gulf of Thailand.

As we puttered along the mangrove-lined river in a long-tail fishing boat with Capt. Chim, a man in his early 30s, we passed villages of wooden shacks with corrugated metal roofs suspended over the water on stilts. Although Kampot is not as cosmopolitan as it once was — it was the country’s primary port until the emergence of Sihanoukville in the 1950s — its access to the ocean continues to draw a mixed crowd.

We passed a fishing village with a white minaret poking out from a clump of palm trees, home to Cham Muslims, an ethnic minority that makes up 5 percent of Cambodia’s population and tends to live apart from the majority Khmer. Several minutes later, on the opposite bank, ethnic Vietnamese fishermen waved to us from moored boats as they prepped their nets for the night’s work ahead.

Gradually, the river widened until it deposited us into the Gulf of Thailand. Capt. Chim stopped the boat at a large sandbar some distance from land. Nearby, a hulking sand-dredging barge, pitched on its side, sat idle, a sign that the area’s small-scale approach to development would not last forever. A joint Cambodian-Vietnamese firm is building a resort and casino here on reclaimed land, Capt. Chim told us.

That night, back on Kampot’s sleepy riverside, we had well-made gin and tonics at the breezy Wunderbar before sampling the area’s famous fresh seafood at open-air and candlelit Rikitikitavi, where the fish amok, a coconut-milk mousse made with white fish, was superb.

The next morning, we were ready to tackle the nearby Elephant Mountains, a series of jungle-covered hills that rise toward the coast before sloping dramatically into the sea. A trip up Bokor Mountain, which can be arranged through travel agencies in Kampot, is one of Cambodia’s essential experiences.

As our car wound its way up the mountain, gaps in the thick roadside foliage revealed breathtakingly clear glimpses of the flat rice plains and salt fields that stretch for miles below. Near the top, tucked away in a small valley, is Bokor Hill Station, which the French built in the 1920s as a retreat from the sweltering Phnom Penh heat. They abandoned the area during fighting with Cambodian nationalists after World War II, and apart from some short-term stays by Khmer Rouge guerrillas, the Catholic cathedral, villas and four-story Bokor Palace Hotel have sat empty.

Rust-colored lichen and green moss have made primitive splatter canvases of the buildings’ gray stone and reinforced concrete exteriors. As I wandered through the empty hotel, the wind whistled down empty corridors, the hand-painted floor tiles covered in layers of dust and grime. On the back veranda, where colonialists would have sipped aperitifs and enjoyed the fresh air, I chatted with a large family of Cambodian tourists from Phnom Penh. “There are ghosts in there,” said a man named Hang, to nervous laughter from his family members. “People lost money at the casino and jumped to their deaths. They haunt these buildings.”

Kep, the seaside retreat 15 miles southeast of Kampot, has its share of ghosts, too. Less a town than a collection of small resorts and seafood shacks, in the post-World War II years it was a glamorous weekend getaway for the Khmer elite, who vacationed in Le Corbusier-inspired villas built by the country’s premier architects.

These villas reportedly hosted wild parties with actors, pop stars and artists who were driving a cultural renaissance in the 1950s and ’60s. Now they’ve been reduced to little more than their foundations and a few walls. You can wander through them and imagine their former grandeur, but the only signs of life are the graffiti scrawled on the walls and the disused clotheslines left by squatters.

One exception is Villa Romonea, a six-room hotel that was designed as a private villa by leading Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap in the late 1960s. The modernist-style house was the lifelong dream of a local businesswoman who grew up across the road. But she lived in the house for only a few years before the Khmer Rouge took over the area and eventually executed her. Her vision lives on, though, in the house’s exquisite design, with its curved rear facade, which mimics the bend of the shoreline it faces, and the walls of windows that keep the minimalist interior airy, cool and light.

Life in Kep revolves around its rocky beaches, so in the late afternoons, it’s best to head there to watch the locals gather to buy snacks such as the scrumptious num ompong, tubular rice cookies covered in black sesame seeds, from street vendors. The cookies go well with Campari and sodas at the Sailing Club, a nearby sky-blue bar and veranda.

Kep is known for its fresh crab, and the best place to sample it is Kim Ly restaurant, where metal cages containing the day’s catch bob in the gentle surf. Sitting at a table facing the water, which glistened through tiny cracks in the floor below us, we devoured a heaping plate of crab, which is prepared with fresh green peppercorns from local farms. The way the sweetness of the crab meat interacts with the richness of the coconut milk and the spiciness of the peppercorns has made this dish a local institution.

The area’s peppercorn is also renowned. Once a prized ingredient in the world’s best kitchens — particularly in France — the crop was all but destroyed during Cambodia’s 30-year civil war. It has made a comeback in recent years, and in 2010 the European Union and the Cambodian government granted it “geographical indication” status, which has raised its profile.

I wanted to see these farms firsthand, so we rented motorbikes and drove up into the low hills half an hour outside Kep, where peppercorn plantations thrive. Down a rutted dirt road is the Heng Kimean farm, run by 55-year-old Saem, who showed us around the clumps of vines growing on wooden poles spaced several feet apart.

He pulled a fresh sprig from a mature vine and offered it to us. We munched happily, the spice’s mild piquancy tingling in our mouths. “I’m selling more and more to France,” said Saem. “The chefs in Paris have found us again.”

After years of inaccessibility, the world is also once again discovering the charms of Kampot and Kep.

Roasa is a writer based in Phnom Penh.
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