The government’s repeated recent efforts to belittle Thailand’s economic role in Cambodia may sound politically correct during the current stand-off, but by butchering the facts not only is it embarrassing itself, the government is also releasing information that misleads key sectors of the economy, this time tourism. Many assertions made this week by Ministry of Tourism Secretary of State So Mora about Thailand’s part in the growth of Cambodia’s travel industry are simply not true.
The biggest fabrication was the claim Thailand is not the main route into Cambodia anymore. So Mora need only walk into the statistics division on the second floor of his own ministry to find data that shows in 2010 over 40 percent of arrivals to Cambodia’s biggest attraction Siem Reap came via Poipet or Bangkok, while Vietnam was a distant second with 31 percent. The Thailand figure would actually have been much higher were it not for a 37-percent drop in air traffic between Bangkok and Siem Reap last year, a sign the Ministry of Tourism should be promoting greater competition on this highly promising yet restricted route.
Although the government does not break down figures on the origin of arrivals to Phnom Penh Airport, there is no doubt Bangkok is the main gateway. Not only does the Thai capital have the most connections of any foreign airport, it is also the hub connecting the only intercontinental flight on a non-Asian carrier following the launch of Air France’s new route from Paris in March. There is therefore no doubt that although Ho Chi Minh City may be catching Bangkok in terms of its relevance as a gateway to Cambodia, Thailand is still the main hub and really the only transit point for air arrivals from Europe and the Middle East.
In terms of land crossings, Bavet overtook Poipet in April last year as the main gateway but that was almost certainly due to the chaos in Bangkok at the time. Ministry of Tourism data showed Poipet took the lead back once tourism had recovered in Thailand in October, November and December, which also marks the start of the high season. Overall then Thailand remains the undisputed gateway to Cambodia, according to government data, meaning So Mara’s claim “our tourism sector is not at all dependent on Thailand” is questionable.
Vietnam may be catching up in terms of its role in Cambodia’s rise as a tourism destination but Thailand is still the main foreign pillar of the domestic travel industry and will be for some time. Instead of denying this fact, the Tourism Ministry might do well to direct its attention to more pressing issues such as pushing national carrier Cambodia Angkor Air to fly to Sihanoukville so beach goers stay here rather than disappear to Phuket or Ko Samui.
Ministry of Tourism officials might therefore consider getting back to what they do best, namely promoting Cambodia as a travel destination.