In the two years prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Cambodia was visited by nearly seven million foreign tourists. Back in 2018 and 2019, Chinese travellers made a significant contribution to the tourism market in Cambodia, particularly on the coast in Preah Sihanouk province and Sihanoukville.
At the height of the global pandemic, China closed its borders and instituted a series of lockdowns and strict measures in pursuit of its “zero Covid” policy that sought to stamp out all spread of the virus entirely.
Thus, in 2020 Cambodia had just over 1.3 million foreign tourists and in 2021 international tourism fell by 85 per cent, with under 200,000 tourists visiting the Kingdom in total.
A senior Ministry of Tourism official said that the tourism sector in Cambodia is now recovering, but it will take around three to four years to return to pre-Covid levels of activity. This past year has seen nearly 2.28 million tourists visit Cambodia.
“For 2023, the situation will continue to improve with new international arrivals from different countries, including China. We cannot assess the number of their arrivals yet because it is only January at the beginning of the year,” said Aing Sovannaroth, the deputy director general tourism development and international cooperation of the Ministry of Tourism.
He added that the number of domestic tourists was similar to pre-Covid levels and there are also around 1.8 million foreigners living and working in Cambodia long term.
“We expect that the number of international tourists in 2025 or 2026 will reach a level of over seven million again,” he continued.
Chinese-language speaking tour guide Sok Try took on a job as a Chinese interpreter in Phnom Penh temporarily in 2020 and 2021 due to a lack of clientele for his regular profession.
Upon receiving the news that China would allow its people to travel outside of their country along with the lifting of the “zero Covid” policy within China that had caused widespread economic hardship, discontent and even protests, the 35-year-old tour guide returned to his hometown in Siem Reap province in preparation for welcoming Chinese tourists and showing them Cambodia’s famous temples once again.
“However, I had hoped to receive some visitors during the Lunar New Year, but instead I was not invited to act as a tour guide for any visitors, not even one yet,” Sok Try said.
China Daily reported on January 21 that 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 beginning on February 6.
According to a 2022 tourism report, the number of Chinese visitors was just more than 100,000 in 2022. The number of US visitors was nearly 100,000 and French visitors reached over 50,000, while British visitors were at over 40,000.
However, the population of China is 1.5 billion people whereas the US – even though it is the third most populous nation on Earth after China and India – has just 330 million or so citizens, and France and Britain far fewer than that.
Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA), said that later in January and in February CATA had been accepting bookings and making inquiries.
“Air transport is not yet plentiful because it takes some time for the companies to reestablish their routes. From February, there will be more flights and major tour firms will also begin their charter flights,” she added.
Both CATA and the Cambodia Hotel Association’s Siem Reap chapter are ready to receive international tourists, despite the slow of returning to normal.
David-Jaya Piot, president of the Cambodia Hotel Association’s Siem Reap chapter welcomed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s remarks welcoming foreign visitors, especially Chinese tourists to Cambodia.
He added that the association was ready to welcome Chinese visitors as well as all other visitors to Siem Reap province. In the future, more tourists will visit the province again and the association was able to build its capacity to receive more visitors when tourists increase during this slow period.
David-Jaya Piot, who is also the founder of Kulen Elephant Forest, said on January 25: “I believe that the tourism sector in Cambodia will gain slow momentum because many global crises have hurt the tourism sectors across the world.”
“In addition, we can also see that recently Cambodia has encountered market problems, compared to neighbouring countries with high potential for tourism, like Thailand and Vietnam,” he added.
English-language speaking tour guide Meas Sopha said that he was ready to act as a tour guide whenever English speaking visitors began to travel.
“I haven’t given up on being a tour guide for my career despite over two years of Covid disruptions. Nowadays, I don’t act as a tour guide, I just review the knowledge and read up on all of the history and information so I don’t forget,” he added.
Meas Sopha and Sok Try have little expectation that things will return to normal immediately like before Covid-19, saying that the Russian war against Ukraine will still have some long-term impacts.
As Chinese tourists are the main customer for Cambodia’s market and Cambodia is ready to welcome Chinese tourists any time now, Sovannaroth acknowledged that Cambodia might see some benefit from the Chinese government’s policy shift allowing their people to go abroad in the next few months.
“On the way forward, we are ready to welcome Chinese tourists because before the Covid-19 crisis, Chinese tourists were one of the main sources of income for Cambodia for the tourist sector,” he added.
“We hope that China, as a good friend of Cambodia, will choose Cambodia as a tourist destination and also as a place to do business,” he stated.
The Ministry of Tourism expects that this year Cambodia may have over one million Chinese visitors.
David-Jaya Piot acknowledged that the Covid crisis and the war in Ukraine, which has caused soaring fuel prices and inflation, has pushed travelling costs too high and out of reach for many people, but it also offers some opportunity.
“It means that the medium-term tourist sector market competition will increase in terms of who can provide a high-quality experience. A large number of less-well-off tourists are still in crisis financially and not considering large expenditures like trips, so it takes more time for the tourism sector to recover,” he added.
Now that the construction of an international airport in Siem Reap town is 60 per cent complete, Chhay Sivlin and David-Jaya Piot said similarly that they have high expectations of establishing direct flights from various countries to Siem Reap town.
“Truly, this new airport in Siem Reap province will help drive the growth of tourism because the airport is large and can accommodate many passengers and encourage direct flights from far-away areas,” David-Jaya Piot said.