THE number of tourists visiting Preah Vihear province dropped 59 percent in the first half of the year compared with the first six months of 2008, the provincial tourism chief said on Thursday as tensions continued to hurt tourism.
Kong Vibol blamed the long-running dispute with Thailand over the ownership of land around the cliff-top temple - the province's key attraction - for the slide in overall tourist numbers from 85,000 to 34,500.
The decline in foreign tourist numbers was even worse - down 83 percent to just 5,050 visitors from 30,000 in the same period last year.
Kong Vibol said fewer Cambodians had visited, and that the closure of the border on the Thai side had cut off Thai and other foreign tourists. He said the global financial crisis had also had an impact.
"Despite the fact that both sides are on high alert and the temple remains open, both foreign and local tourists are concerned about their safety," he said.
"Every tour company running excursions to Preah Vihear temple asks if it is safe to visit before they leave."
Kong Vibol said the decline in numbers had hurt the livelihoods of local people who rely on the temple for a living, but added that the damage was not too severe.
And he predicted that if the situation stabilises, tourists will return along newly improved access roads.
Ho Vandy, the co-chairman of the government-private working group on tourism and the managing director of World Express Tours and Travel, said on Thursday that the dispute between the two countries had made tourists fearful of further shootouts.
"Confrontations between the two countries' armed forces mean visitors are worried for their safety," he said. "My company won't run tours to the temple at this time because we can't risk the safety of our guests."
Ho Vandy said numbers would continue to slide if there were further clashes.
The World Court awarded Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over the surrounding land has never been properly established.
Tensions flared last July when UNESCO, the UN's cultural agency, approved Cambodia's bid to have the temple named as a World Heritage Site.
Troops have since built up on the frontier around the 11th-century temple.
Two previous clashes between Thai and Cambodian soldiers resulted in deaths on October 15 last year and April 3 this year.