(CNN)In Sihanoukville's Jin Bei Casino & Hotel, young Cambodian women wearing tight mini-skirts swerve through the thick cigarette smoke, carrying turquoise cocktails for Chinese gamblers. A dozen croupiers work the room, picking up thick wads of notes from the players and converting them into plastic tokens. "I earn $500 per month," says one croupier -- a small fortune in a country where the minimum wage is just $170 a month. Most players here are betting big, with the smallest token worth $100.
How Cambodia's backpacker haven became a Chinese casino mecca
Once a quiet seaside haven for backpackers, Sihanoukville has morphed into a giant construction site in the past three years. Cranes dot the skyline, roads have become muddy potholed lanes and jackhammers resonate late into the night. Many of the new buildings are casinos. The province hosting the city on Cambodia's south coast now boasts 88 of them, compared to 15 in late 2015.
Most of this activity is due to Chinese developers, says Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a Southeast Asian studies expert from Lund University in Sweden. "An estimated 90% of businesses in Sihanoukville, including hotels, restaurants and entertainment establishments, are now owned by the Chinese," she says.
Many building fronts in Sihanoukville are now covered in Chinese characters. On the beachfront, Sichuan hotpots have replaced plenty of the 50-cent beer joints beloved by Western travelers.
This has had far-reaching consequences for locals, squeezing their income from traditional backpacker tourism channels, pushing some into dangerous jobs on construction sites and bringing a thriving casino industry to the city, which has caused many residents to lose their homes.
By transforming Sihanoukville into a casino mecca, Cambodia hopes to rival other Asian gaming hubs like Macao, Singapore and Manila. Gambling is illegal for locals since 1996. So the city hopes to attract Chinese tourists, who are not allowed to gamble in their home country. Despite a recent crackdown on online gambling, they are coming in droves.
"It is extremely easy to obtain a casino license in Cambodia," says Ben Lee, the founder of IGamiX, a Macao-based consultancy firm focused on the gaming industry in Asia. "To get one, all you need is to prove you have a parcel of land and to pay an application fee to the Cambodian ministry of finance, which is in charge of overseeing casinos."
Casino operators here aren't required to check their customer's identity or verify the origins of their funds, according to several industry experts. Earnings from gaming are not taxed, although the government collects a monthly fee from bigger casinos and a fixed levy on each table and slot machine from smaller ones, Lee adds.
A new gaming law, which Cambodia plans to publish next year, would introduce a 4% to 5% levy on casino revenue. In Macao, it is 38% to 39%.
The Financial Action Task Force, a crime-fighting organization founded by the G7, recently placed Cambodia on its gray list of countries vulnerable to money laundering, citing the lack of regulation of its casinos, which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has warned could be used to launder the proceeds from organized crime, including methamphetamine trafficking.
A few mega-casinos have, however, started to sprout up. The imaginatively named Wisney World will feature three themed casinos, an amusement park, a safari and an artificial lake. Meanwhile, to the east of the city, Suncity, one of Macao's largest junket operators, and Jincheng Group, a company linked to Chinese plane maker AVIC, have started construction on a huge gaming complex nicknamed "Chinatown" by locals.
Sihanoukville has also become a hotbed for online casinos.
In one establishment, tucked away in a side street, a row of women wearing black lace leotards shuffle cards. They stare into cameras with fixed smiles. There are no players. "The game is live-streamed to bettors -- usually based in China -- who play remotely," explains Jonny Ferrari, a Canadian online gaming consultant who lives in Sihanoukville.
The online casino industry is sparsely regulated. "I have seen Chinese businessmen buy a building, get a casino license and rent out sections to various online casino operators," Ferrari says. "As long as they pay the rent, no questions are asked. They don't even have to show identification."
These virtual operations are legal in Cambodia but not in China, where gambling is forbidden.
To get around this prohibition -- and Beijing's strict foreign exchange controls -- Ferrari says "agents collect the money in China, using WeChat Pay or in Bitcoin, and a local representative in Cambodia provides a cash advance." He will use any future gains to repay himself.
Thanks to this underground banking system, no money actually crosses the border.
Chinese companies started taking root in Cambodia in the late 1990s. But their interest really spiked after President Xi Jinping launched China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) -- his grand plan to push the country's influence globally -- in 2013.
Beijing invested $5.3 billion in Cambodia between 2013 and 2017, Nut Unvoanra, deputy secretary general of the Cambodia Investment Board, told the Phnom Penh Post.
"Just this year, new projects valued at $4.8 billion have been announced," says Andrew Davenport from RWR Advisory Group, an agency tracking Chinese investments.
The investments make sense commercially. Chinese manufacturers profit from the lower wages in Cambodia and use it as a base to avoid American tariffs on Chinese goods. In Sihanoukville, the Chinese company Jiangsu Taihu Cambodia International Economic Cooperation Investment and a local partner have set up a special economic zone on the outskirts of town.
More than 160 Chinese companies -- mostly garment, leather goods and furniture makers -- already operate in the area. In June, the United States fined several companies based there for dodging US tariffs by labeling their goods as Cambodian even though they had been produced in China, US Embassy spokesman Arend Zwartjes told Reuters in an emailed statement.
"Beijing also wants to create new markets for its infrastructure firms abroad," says Agatha Kratz, an associate director at Rhodium Group who studies BRI investments. Chinese overcapacity means it needs to export some of its iron and cement by building roads, airports and railway lines, she adds. State-owned company China Communications Construction, for example, is building a $2 billion four-lane highway linking Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh, cutting the journey from six to two hours.
Many of these projects are financed with Chinese loans -- as of the end of 2018, Cambodia had borrowed $4.6 billion from China, according to an official report on the country's public debt.
There are also geo-strategic considerations for China to be invested in Cambodia. Davenport adds: "Cambodia has become Beijing's main ally in Southeast Asia. It systematically backs China's claims to the South China Sea within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)."
With its new casinos and hotels, Sihanoukville aims to attract mostly Chinese tourists, especially members of the new middle class. The city's airport has dozens of flights to second- and third-tier cities in China. In 2018, 2 million of the 6.2 million tourists to visit Cambodia were Chinese.
Many of these holidaymakers were traveling abroad for the first time, according to local business people working in the tourism sector. Generally, they prefer to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants staffed by fellow Chinese. Some are bused straight from the airport to a casino and spend a week gambling before heading back to China.
Locals call these travelers "zero-dollar tourists," because they spend virtually no money in Cambodia -- coming in on package tours, their whole stay is paid for before they leave China.
For that reason, many Sihanoukville residents who depend on tourism say their revenues have vanished almost overnight. A row of shuttered restaurants and abandoned bungalows on Otres Beach, traditionally one of the more popular spots, highlights the extent of the problem.
"I still get a few local customers, but Chinese tourists don't come here and the Western ones have fled," says Keo Puth Vireak, a 50-year-old who operates a stall on the beach. "I liked them better. They were here to have fun, not just gamble. And they understood that us locals need to make a living."
Behind the beach, a street that used to be full of bars and travel agents is now covered in "for sale" signs. "The workers came one day, emptied out the lake and cut down all the trees," says Sina, the son-in-law of Sok Sabay Resort's owner, standing on a veranda that used to look out onto a picturesque pond and now sits next to a construction site.
Many of the limited jobs left for locals are tough and dangerous, says Athit Kong, a trade unionist. "On the construction sites, Chinese workers take on all the qualified jobs," he says. "Cambodians are only hired to do menial work."
In Sihanoukville, many local laborers wear sneakers and work without helmets. They tie T-shirts around their mouths to protect themselves against dust. "We have quite stringent laws regarding worker safety in Cambodia, but they are rarely enforced," Kong says. CNN contacted the Cambodian Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction about allegations workers lack proper safety equipment, but did not receive a reply.
The workers usually live within the compound they are constructing. "This is a major safety hazard," Kong adds. "A half-finished structure can come crashing down at any time."
In June, Kreal Oeun and her husband were asleep in the middle of the night when the Sihanoukville building they lived in came crashing down, killing 28 people.
The couple spent 12 hours trapped under the rubble. "It was terribly hot and we didn't have anything to drink," says her husband, 30-year-old Nhov Channeth. "To survive, we had to lick the condensation on the walls."
Channeth says his 18-year-old brother, who was supposed to get married this year, died in the accident.
They had been living with their coworkers in makeshift accommodation on the second floor of the half-constructed building, which was set to house high-end condos. The contractors hadn't secured a construction permit, a spokesman for Cambodia's Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction told Chinese state-run media Xinhua.