The post-Covid-19 resumption of regular direct commercial flights between mainland China and Sihanoukville has been welcomed as a milestone in the recovery of international travel to the Kingdom.

Chinese-owned Ruili Airlines got the ball rolling on January 27 after flight DR5031 from Kunming touched down in Sihanoukville at 9:45am, with a total of 104 passengers and six crew members aboard.

This comes nearly three weeks after Beijing’s January 8 reopening to inbound and outbound tourism, amid concerns that spiralling coronavirus infections in China following the dismantling of its “dynamic zero-Covid” regime could be driving the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants of the pathogen.

Passengers on the inaugural flight were welcomed with banners and souvenirs, and greeted by officials from the tourism ministry, civil aviation regulator, and provincial agencies.

In a speech delivered on the occasion, Ministry of Tourism secretary of state Hor Sarun affirmed that Chinese tourists are free to travel throughout Cambodia without being subjected to Covid tests or similar measures, stressing that the Kingdom is “ready” to welcome back overseas travellers.

State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) spokesman Sin Chansereyvutha took flight DR5031 as a “sign” of a pick-up in of tourists and businesspeople from China to Cambodia.

“The Chinese government recently abolished its strict zero-Covid policy, which paved the way for its citizens to travel abroad, so direct flights from China to Preah Sihanouk are the beginning of Chinese tourists’ return to Cambodia,” he said.

Preah Sihanouk provincial deputy governor Long Dimanche told The Post on January 29 that the flight as well as the gradual return of foreign tourists to Cambodia “reflect” their confidence in the Kingdom, especially Preah Sihanouk, for which he indicated there is substantial pent-up travel demand for among Chinese holidaymakers.

“This also shows that Preah Sihanouk is a promising tourism and investment destination … [and that] we are prepared to receive [international arrivals] and support growth of the national economy as a whole,” he said.

He noted that former Chinese investors and those interested in their countrymen’s ventures have been making their way into the southeastern coastal province.

Cambodia is among 20 countries selected by Beijing for a pilot programme allowing travel agencies to provide international group tours as well as flight and hotel packages to Chinese citizens, following a three-year ban, the state-owned China Daily reported, citing a January 20 notice from China’s tourism ministry.

The other 19 countries chosen for the programme, which kicks off on February 6, were Argentina, Cuba, Fiji, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, Kenya, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, New Zealand, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.