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Navigating the tourism downturn

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Figures suggest that the global economic crisis has already hit Cambodia’s tourism sector, but Tourism Minister Thong Khon says there is no need for the travel industry to start panicking

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HENG CHIVOAN

Minister of Tourism Thong Khon says there is still potential for growth in the travel sector over the next two years.

Tourism sector Stimulus

Following a meeting with the travel industry Friday to discuss strategies to help the industry weather the global financial storm, Tourism Minister Thong Khon will meet with Minister of Finance Keat Chhon today. The two ministries will decide whether the government coffers can withstand a host of proposals designed to stimulate the flagging tourism sector, among them the proposed scrapping of tourism visas, a measure that the industry has supported to boost traveller numbers. Nevertheless, US$20 travel visas are a lucrative source of state finances – more than two million tourists visited the Kingdom in 2008. Tourist-visa revenue was therefore more than $40 million last year, money that would be lost should travel visas be abolished. Other proposals include increasing flights and lowering Angkor Wat entry fees. MAY KUNMAKARA

In an interview with the Post, Minister of Tourism Thong Khon reflects on the further development of Cambodia's tourism sector during what will be a difficult period, given that many potential travellers in the West are now suffering from the financial crisis.  With the tourism sector already showing signs it has been hit, Cambodia is now trying to develop strategies to deal with the slump, the minister says.

What strategies and plans do you have for developing the tourism sector in Cambodia during the global financial crisis?   

First we must find out the effect of the global financial crisis as clearly as possible. We know that the financial crisis is having a negative affect on the income of travellers in many countries.

The income of people in the United States and in Europe has also been affected, which shortens their trips. There was a decline in the number of tourists in Europe in 2008, and this problem has also spread to Asia.

The first thing we have to do is boost the number of regional tourists.

Seeing the above problem, we have decided to choose strategies to attract tourists in the region during this year and the future. This does not mean that we will forget tourists from the US and Europe.

The first thing we have to do is boost the number of regional tourists by introducing a simple travelling process for them, including the facilitation of visa documents for getting in and out of Cambodia.... We have already highlighted the need for visas with countries like Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Brunei.

It is only Thailand and Indonesia that we have not dealt with yet. We will solve this problem by 2010. Apart from that, we are also trying to facilitate transportation services by allowing automobiles to cross the border for one week by just showing a valid customs document. We want to let in 150 automobiles, both passenger carriers and goods vehicles, from countries that have land borders with us so that travellers can cross the border, in and out of our country, every day.

We also haven't forgotten to boost cheap flights that connect to the region.

To what extent can the above perspective help increase visitors to Cambodia?

According to our ... strategies as mentioned above, we hope that there will be more travellers. We expect to increase the number of tourists by five percent to seven percent on top of the 2.15 million visitors we received in 2008.

On what basis can you make such projections?

We will create a competition system for the most beautiful and clean cities and resorts to attract visitors. In the meantime, we will also expand advertising for two new products ... the dolphin site in Kratie province and the mangrove forest in Koh Kong province - to overseas travellers because we know that tourists at present like visiting environmental resorts and they like to help reduce poverty.

In two years, we will try our best to make Siem Reap a town free of flies, highlight commission payments and increase  the quality of food to an acceptable level.

From which countries does Cambodia plan to attract visitors to ensure an increase during the financial crisis period?

Our new targets include the Middle East and Russia because these countries have not been affected by the global financial crisis very much.

We will have a memorandum of understanding agreement with Kuwait, and then we will soon expand our advertising into Kuwaiti markets. We expect to get at least 50,000 visitors from Kuwait every year. Similarly, we also wish to boost advertising to attract visitors from Russia by encouraging direct flights from such countries to Cambodia.

Moreover, we plan to also get tourists from Asean countries, China, Japan, Korea and India, too.

Has the ministry thought of building more hotels in such circumstances?

We believe that the global financial crisis will disturb our tourism sector for two years only, and that the sector will recover in 2011.

According to the tourism statistics we are getting now, we think that we need to build 1,000 extra hotels rooms every year.

And we will encourage the building of more hotels in certain areas such as Koh Kong and Kratie provinces where modern hotels do not exist yet.

Will the revenue and the number of people who work in this sector decrease or not?

In 2008, we received an income of about US$1.4 billion from the tourism sector, and we expect $1.5 billion in 2009. Also, the tourism sector has created jobs for about 300,000 people in Cambodia, and this figure may increase up to half a million people in the next five years. This is what we expect.

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