Siem Reap’s New Airport, a Hope for Tourism Revitalization?

Tourists visit Angkor Wat in April 2023. Photo: Isa Rohany

SIEM REAP – Nearly two years after Cambodia lifted all travel restrictions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, the massive return of international visitors is still a long way off.

According to statistics from the Tourism Ministry, a total of 3.037 million tourists came to Cambodia in the first seven months of the year. Although such a number is undeniably much higher than in 2020, 2021 and 2022, it is still 20.9 percent down compared to the same period in 2019.

Siem Reap province, the country's main tourist destination with the world-famous temples of Angkor, is no exception and is struggling to revive its tourism industry.

Before the pandemic, the province was home to 283 hotels and guesthouses, with a total of 16,765 rooms, which provided jobs to 14,181 people, said the director of the Provincial Department of Tourism Ngov Seng Kak.

But to date, only 139 establishments (around 60 percent), have reopened their door to the public, accounting for 8,000 rooms. A total of 79 hotels, representing 6,000 rooms and 6,000 employees, are yet to resume operation, while 65 hotels, equivalent to 2,000 rooms, have definitely closed.

This slow recovery has two main reasons. As there used to be an oversupply of hotels and restaurants in the province, the pandemic has so far downsized the hospitality sector; and the number of international visitors who travel to Cambodia doesn’t yet allow every business to be afloat.

Could the new airport be the answer?

In the first seven months of the year, a total of 264,018 international tourists arrived at Siem Reap’s international airport, compared to 1,067,917 over the same period in 2019.

But the city’s historical facility, run by Cambodia Airports, will soon cease its activities despite not being used at its maximum capacity. From Oct. 16, it will be replaced by the newly-built Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport, located 40 kilometers east of the city.

Most tour operators have high expectations of the new airport to attract new tourists to the province. Angkor International Airport Investment (AIAI), the Chinese company that will run the airport expects that it will host 7 million passengers by 2030.

On Aug. 19, the Siem Reap Tourism Club (STC), an organization that aims to promote tourism in the province, convened a meeting with tour operators and the provincial authorities to indicate the problem of the lack of affluence and bring recommendations.

“Thailand is among the top tourist destinations in the world, so we as tour operators need to come together to discuss what we could be missing out on in our tourism sector,” said Philip Kao STC’s president.

STC held its first post-pandemic meeting in August after being disrupted for two years. Philip Kao said the meeting was held because the new Siem Reap-Angkor airport opening was approaching so the timing was good for tour operators to try to attract more tourists.

“Currently, there are between 15 and 17 flights a day to Siem Reap, coming from Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Malaysia and China,” said Ngov Seng Kak of the tourism department.

He is optimistic that the new airport will encourage new and bigger airlines to open new routes to Siem Reap. Long-haul planes will be able to land on the new runway – something that can’t be done at the current facility – paving the way to direct flights from the U.S., Europe or Australia.

“In my opinion, if we can have between 30 to 35 flights in October and keep this number consistent until February 2024, we will be able to revive tourism in the province,” he added, underlining that the opening of the airport coincides with the tourist peak season – from November to February.

“However, if by March, the number of flights declines to 18, we will have a hard time again.”

Lu Wei, the chairman of AIAI, said the airport team will discuss with airlines to increase the number of flights to Siem Reap. But he stressed that the work might take a lot of time, adding that at first, the number of flights will probably be the same as at the current airport.

“Before the pandemic, we had a lot of Chinese tourists,” he said on Aug. 25 during a forum organized by the Cambodia Tourism Association (CATA). “We will try to attract Chinese tourists to Siem Reap because more flights mean growth for our company.”

A new government for a new tourism strategy?

Duch Sareth, the vice president of CATA, said that on behalf of the association, he wants to see all tour operators work closely together to attract more tourists, especially from China, which used to be the main country of origin of tourists visiting Cambodia.

While over 1.5 million Chinese tourists visited Cambodia in the first seven months of 2019, there were only 318,498 of them in the same period in 2023.

“The new airport opens at the same time that a new government starts running the country, so we are trying to encourage everybody to keep the information up to date for their own benefits,” said Sareth, stressing that increasing the number of flights can revitalize tourism in Siem Reap.

He encouraged tour operators and relevant stakeholders to keep holding on, as the worst of the crisis is likely over.

“Everybody has suffered, but this crisis does not occur only in Cambodia but in the world,” he said. “Do not lose hope because by working together we can make things possible.”

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