Cambodians tread lightly as they dip their toes into the swimming pool market
By Matilda Brown
While moving floors, Romanesque columns and indoor waterfalls are some of the impressive features of million-dollar swimming pools around the world, in Cambodia the swimming pool market is a far simpler affair.
“Even wealthy clients here tend to be quite conservative and often opt for simple, basic materials and equipment rather than the high-end, flashy features our clients in Vietnam prefer,” said Kevin Weiser, a technical advisor at Dr Pool, a Siem Reap-based swimming pool and technical support company.
While the swimming pool sector in Cambodia is still in its infancy, a burgeoning tourism industry and rising incomes are giving a boost to a local market that stagnated at the height of the global economic slowdown, when consumers tightened purse strings on luxury items.
With the country’s GDP projected at 6.5% for 2012, the strings are loosening and pool providers in the Kingdom are recording rising interest in swimming pools in both residential and commercial properties.
“The pool and spa industry is very closely tied to the property market, and any improvement in the property market will undoubtedly benefit the pool market,” said Weiser.
With more than 15 serviced apartment buildings in the capital alone, and the number of residential and commercial developments increasing across the country, the growing demand for Western-style property in the Kingdom bodes well for the pool market’s growth.
“Swimming pools are becoming a well sought-after commodity [in Cambodia],” said Owen Williams, a surveyor at residential property specialist CB Richard Ellis (CBRE).
This is particularly true in Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat, which attracted some 1.6 million visitors last year – a 23% increase from 2010. “The more tourists, the more revenue for the hotels, the larger the pool and spa operating budget,” said Weiser.
With 1.27 million tourists arriving in the Kingdom in the first quarter of 2012, Siem Reap is enjoying a flourishing hotel market, with Scott Sawyer of Purapool saying that the demand for hotel pools is currently higher in temple town than the capital: “That said, Phnom Penh is still the capital and will always have a decent market for pools and construction for the immediate future.”
As the tourism market diversifies, smaller hotels are seeing increasing demand for hotels with pools.
“On the whole, Cambodia is attracting wealthier tourists than say ten years ago, so tourist spending patterns are changing,” said Eden Thomas, owner of 3Mangos, a recently opened Phnom Penh guesthouse targeting the ‘flashpacker’ segment. “Tourists definitely prefer having a pool.”
It is a consumer spending preference an increasing number of hotels across the country are happily betting on. “It is a must for hotels to have a pool at the present time. Those without a pool need other facilities and activities to compensate,” said Sometheareach Din, owner of the established Cambodia-based Frangipani hotel chain. The hotelier said a pool adds at least $10 to $20 to the value of one of his hotel rooms: “It is an important element that improves a hotel brand.”
A successful entrepreneur, Sometheareach Din represents Cambodia’s growing middle class. Young, ambitious and with a disposable income, this segment wishes to “have more luxury in their life”, he said.
It is a lifestyle choice that Sawyer is happy to accommodate. “They are our mainstay,” he said of his Cambodian clients, Purapool’s largest customer base that generally consists of first-time buyers. “Let’s say owning a pool has now become something of a trend amongst the Khmer elite,” he said. As with most things, the price of a pool in Cambodia depends on the quality and size; price tags range from $10,000 to more than $600,000, plus maintenance fees of $80 to $550. “Pools in Cambodia tend to be larger than in most developed countries, where land is at a premium,” added Sawyer. “For example, in Cambodia our average pool is between 150 and 250 square metres compared to 60 to 100 square metres in Australia.”
Unlike in the West, where swimming pools have been common for more than one hundred years, the Cambodian market is in its infancy. “There is a shortage of qualified, knowledgeable aquatic professionals and therefore there is a lot of misinformation about pool and spa operations and maintenance, especially with regard to water quality,” said Weiser.
“Most pools here are still being built using old construction methods and technology. Even salt water pools are now nearly 50-year-old technology, yet they are still a minority compared to conventional chlorine pools,” said Weiser.
Yet the older, badly built pools are good for business, said Sawyer, who manages many refurbishment projects: “Phnom Penh has a lot of pools, but many are starting to get old, so I think in a few more years’ time, there will be a lot more refurbs in Phnom Penh due to general wear and tear. There will also be growth potential in water treatment, especially in Sihanoukville, where a market is already emerging.”
While people in the West push the boundaries of creativity, the demand for retractable floors in Cambodia may be a novelty of the future. “Most of the products that we are beginning to market here are the norm in Australia, America and Europe,” said Sawyer. “The swimming pool market is indeed very innovative, but much of the innovation is lost on an infant market such as this.”