AttractionsJuggling with zero tourism revenue is a hard balancing act, but Phare, The Cambodian Circus keeps hopes alive with new ways of putting up its shows.

How Cambodia's 'Cirque du Soleil' survived a year of no tourism

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The “Cirque du Soleil” of Asia used to be on the must-do list of foreign visitors to Siem Reap.
The “Cirque du Soleil” of Asia used to be on the must-do list of foreign visitors to Siem Reap. Photo Credit: Phare

If there is one destination that the pandemic has devastated, it’s Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat, where the only economy was tourism.

One organisation that has been at the centre of the storm is Phare, The Cambodian Circus. And because everything is connected — revenues earned by the circus went towards funding the Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO set up to help underprivileged kids in Cambodia find livelihoods in the performing arts — you can imagine the cycle of devastation.

From running shows that catered to more than 800 visitors some days (two shows a day) in Siem Reap, the circus went to zero shows from March to July at the height of the pandemic, held weekend shows for locals when allowed for most of last year and when I spoke to Phare’s CEO Dara Huot in early April, the province was in the middle of a sharp lockdown due to the sudden emergence of new clusters.

Dara Huot (centre) and friends of Phare: “Luckily, Phare is loved by so many people.”
Dara Huot (centre) and friends of Phare: “Luckily, Phare is loved by so many people.”

Generally, Cambodia as a whole has done well in managing infection rates — as of 12 April 2021, it has recorded 4,238 cases with 29 deaths — but it is the stopping of inbound tourism that has been most devastating. “We are in a better place than most, there are sporadic cases here and there but Siem Reap is 100% reliant on tourism, we have zero visitors right now, only a handful of business travellers from China,” said Huot.

Amazingly though, the organisation has found ways to stay alive and held on to its team of 36 artists and 41 staff — with credit going towards a highly creative and resourceful team as well as funds from donors and friends — but unless tourism opens up before the end of the year, Huot said it would find it very challenging to last till 2022.

“We hope at the end of 2021, there will be some kind of international tourism coming back,” he said.

It has burnt US$500,000 from the start of the pandemic to now. “We should have run out of money by 1 April 2021, but fortunately we got a grant from Credit Agricole and Phare lovers in Cambodia around the world which gave us funds to continue for the next few months.”

From July, it got a project grant from the Korea International Corporation Agency and other donors. “Luckily, Phare is loved by so many people,” said Huot.

Phare artists: Its burn rate is now US$30,000 to US$40,000 a month vs US$120,000 before and the organisation is seeking VC funding to execute on its longterm vision.
Phare artists: Its burn rate is now US$30,000 to US$40,000 a month vs US$120,000 before and the organisation is seeking VC funding to execute on its longterm vision.

It took quick measures on its own. From April onwards, 20 staff volunteered to be on a long-term unpaid leave. The rest of the staff agreed to receive 50% salary. A few key positions including director of human resources and operations agreed to receive less than 50%. The CEO volunteered to receive 22% of salary for a period of time. With shows not allowed to perform from March to July 2020, it revamped its pay system to support artists with a basic income, to ensure artists could still rehearse and kept their physical and mental health.

Its burn rate is now US$30,000 to US$40,000 a month versus US$120,000 before.

It caught global attention when on 8 March, it put on a 24-hour circus performance in an attempt to set a new Guinness World Record and in the process, raised a healthy amount of more than US$125,000, an amount that is still climbing. More than one million people have watched the performance virtually.

“That put us in the spotlight and more donations are coming in. We are also applying for more loans but the interest rate is quite high,” said Huot.

He also approached Venture Capital funds to ask for “survival money” in exchange for equity but “encouragingly, they asked us to put forward a proposal for investment money. They want to know what our future plans are – and we’ve always had a long-term vision for Phare — but we never had time to work on the detailed financial plans given how busy we were. This is the perfect opportunity for us to work on this now.”

Its plans include a cultural and creative park in Siem Reap, to make Phare the place to be for all creative and cultural experiences in Cambodia. It wants to include dining circus entertainment in the capital city of Phnom Penh as well as create ancillary revenues in an online boutique and venturing into digital media space, using the artists’ talents and creative human resources at Phare. “We launched the online boutique a few months ago and are adding more products,” said Huot.

Over the years, Phare, the Cambodian Circus has garnered global recognition as the “Cirque du Soleil” of Asia, performing everywhere around the world and its daily performances in Siem Reap were on the must-do list of foreign visitors to Siem Reap.

During the lockdown, it reinvented the experience to cater to local tastes and the artists created three new productions including Phare Circus Rising from August 2020. It ran a street food fair along with the performance. It revamped the pricing. It launched a “Put Smiles On Faces” campaign to draw families to the circus, and the campaign continues to draw donations.

In reality, it’s sold very few tickets, priced at US$10, to the local shows. “The Cambodian purchasing power is small. The culture of going to live performances was destroyed by the war, after Khmer Rouge.”

Phare Ponleu Selpak (meaning The Brightness of the Arts), was formed by nine young Cambodian men with their French teacher after returning from a refugee camp in 1994. It offers artistic, educational, social and community outreach and engagement programmes to children and youths. Over 1,000 students go through the school each year.

To operate, it used to receive US$500,000 from the circus performances yearly, which accounted for 60% of its annual budget. Having cut down its expenses, Huot said this year it needs roughly US$250,000 to last the year.

The circus tried going virtual during Covid but without the funds to invest in the tech, it’s been challenging. The 24-hour circus performance, staged in Battambang, was sponsored by Cambodia’s largest telco, Cellcard. “They set up a creative studio, this was not available to us before and we had the ability to do a 24-hour performance with live streaming on Facebook.”

“This could only have been done in Battambang, Phare is so rooted into the community there,” said Huot. “We had monks coming from pagodas throughout the 24 hours. We had people queuing up at the Big Top — we only allowed 100 people maximum at any one time. There was so much goodwill and love for what we were doing.”

Craig Dodge: “Phare is one of the only few organisations that stayed open and kept staff.”
Craig Dodge: “Phare is one of the only few organisations that stayed open and kept staff.”

In another local fundraising initiative, it launched a US$1 challenge within a mobile bank app and the momentum is still going strong. “Cambodians are stepping up their contribution to social causes and the bank app is so easy to use,” said Craig Dodge, director of sales and marketing for the circus.

Said Dodge, “Have you seen the movie, Mad Max? That’s what Siem Reap looks like right now. They are taking the downtime to widen all the roads and put in drainage. In terms of people here, it’s a ghost town. There are no international tourists, there’s only one domestic flight to Phnom Penh.

“On the one hand, I cycle to the temples and I am the only person at Angkor Wat. It is so peaceful, almost eerie. On the other, it is really devastating, the people whose livelihoods depend on tourism. Ninety percent of hotels have closed, everyone has left.

“Phare is one of the only few organisations that stayed open and kept staff. It is losing buckets of money but it made a conscious decision to support the people and the artists. I hope that’s recognised when tourism returns.”

Source: Web in Travel

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