For Yam Voeung, a businessman in Battambang province, taking a jet to China for a business trip or spending $2,000 on a weeklong Singapore vacation with his wife and son isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity.
“I travel to make my family happy, and to learn new things from other countries,” the 42-year-old said.
Cambodia is often thought of as a destination for tourists rather than a source of them. But tables have been turning in recent years as more and more Cambodians, like Voeung and his family, are travelling abroad.
Outbound tourists – who include medical and business travellers – numbered close to 790,000 for the first 10 months of 2014, up 9 per cent from the same period in 2013. Once the numbers are finally counted, the Ministry of Tourism expects that outbound figure to tip past 1 million for all of last year.
“[The rise] reflects the growing economy in the last five years,” said Minister of Tourism Thong Khon.
Outbound tourism is returning to its pre-economic crisis peak, Khon said, when in 2007 numbers edged close to the 1 million mark.
ASEAN countries have boosted their efforts to draw tourists from their regional neighbours, and Cambodian travellers are part of that market, said Ho Vandy, co-chair of the Private and Public Sector Tourism Working Group.
“One very important factor is that Cambodians may have larger incomes . . . and everyone can easily visit ASEAN countries now,” said Vandy.
Heng Sambath, managing director of local travel agency 2 World Travel, which caters largely to the local outbound market, said his company has seen a 15 to 16 per cent increase in Cambodians travelling abroad this year.
Sambath said Cambodian’s preferred travel to nearby ASEAN countries such as Thailand and Vietnam.
“I think most of them don’t have a lot of wealth, they are middle-class people,” said Sambath.
However, more and more rich Cambodians are buying up luxury travel packages at $2,000 to $3,000 per person, Sambath added.
“Last month, I sent one of my clients to Dubai for New Year’s Eve.”
Up to 40 per cent of Cambodian outbound visitors leave the country for medical tourism, according to the tourism minister.
Josef Woodman, CEO and founder of medical tourism research firm, Patients Beyond Borders, said the top destination for Cambodian medical tourists is Thailand, followed by Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.
“Thailand is the main place that Cambodians head to because of the high-quality of care, the aggressive outreach that target Cambodian patients and the fact that there are a lot of hospitals that serve Cambodians in a way that other neighbouring countries’ hospitals because of offerings like translation services,” he said.
Numbers are rising at one of Bangkok’s most popular hospitals for Cambodian patients, said Kenneth Mays, a senior marketing director at Bumrungrad International Hospital.
May said that about 25,000 Cambodians visited Bumrungrad in 2013, and by November 2014 the hospital had received more than 26,000 for that year.
“In terms of volume, we see a lot of check-ups in pediatrics and women’s health, but for revenue and high-acuity cases, we see a lot of gastrointestinal operations, then heart problems, oncology and orthopedics.”
Although outbound Cambodian visitors are still well short of the 4.5 million international visitors to the Kingdom last year, the growth in local holidaymakers has some concerned about the loss of dollars at home.
“Right now, the ministry is trying to promote more local resorts to not have Cambodia lose the money,” explained tourism minister Khon. “But we cannot force them.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHAN MUYHONG AND HOR KIMSAY