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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Angkor tourism crawls back from the abyss

Angkor tourism crawls back from the abyss

SIEM REAP TOWN - Until recently large groups of tourists were just a fond memory

here. Since the official Nov 1 start of the tourist season, the few intrepid international

tour groups who have overcome the fear of Cambodia's renown strife are being welcomed

with open arms. But there are still, say tourism officials, not enough of them.

The four German and British tour groups consisting of 15 to 20 persons each in town

on Nov 12 would normally represent a fraction of the thousands of visitors to the

temples of Angkor during the tourist season, but this year they may represent a large

portion of this months arrivals.

Still, it is a huge improvement over recent months when tourism went into a coma

following the July fighting in the capital.

"I am surprised none of them canceled," said Tea Franna, the manager at

Diethelm Travel.

The public relations damage from the sight of pitched battles in the streets of Phnom

Penh on CNN is undeniable as tourist arrivals, which began falling in the beginning

of the year, fell flat in July.

Tourism, which peaked in January with the arrival of more than 7,000 visitors, hit

rock bottom between July and October with a combined total of less than 1,200 arrivals,

according to statistics from the Siem Reap tourism office.

The low ebb came in September: 169 tourists - an average of just over six people

arriving by boat or plane each day.

But most of those who came have been more than satisfied, according to Ly Sarith

of the tourism office. "Some come scared, but they leave happy. They say they

get a whole temple to themselves. Others say it is strange that no one comes, the

temples are so empty."

Franna tried to be upbeat about the slight improvements in the tourist market in

November, pointing to crowds at a few of the more popular restaurants and hotel lobbies.

"This is a start," he said.

But the situation has been hardest for guesthouses that rely on backpackers because

"we do not have many of those kinds of tourists", he lamented.

One guesthouse owner said he received about "one visitor each month" in

the months following the July fighting and that the threat of closure continues to

dog him.

Another, who considers himself fortunate, said he is satisfied, for the moment, if

he has one customer in his guesthouse each night.

Establishments such as First Deputy Governor Noe Som's 60-room Neak Pean Inn continue

to plod along with only five people in its 60 rooms, according to staff.

Occupany rates in some of the top-quality hotels - which were struggling along at

5-10% in October - jumped to 20-25% in the first two weeks of November, Franna said.

Still, such figures represent about one-third of last year's rates.

The lean months have seen a corresponding fall in business for moto-taxi drivers,

who rely heavily on tourist dollars. One driver, who said he does better than most,

said his income shriveled from well over $100 per month to less than $50.

With the arrival of the tourist season, industry workers are ready for any improvement

they can get.

They are hoping that political instability and security worries won't reduce December

reservations for 40-45% of the rooms in the main hotels - just over half of last

year's occupancy - through cancellations.

While December looks to be the best month of the second half of the year, there is

little hope for January when bookings are "almost zero," according to Franna.

In the medium-term, tourism prospects are likely to depend on whether there is more

fighting in the north of the province.

"If there is more fighting, it will be bad news for us. No one in the world

wants fighting, but... everyone knows there is going to be a dry season offensive,"

Franna said.

But not all are pessimistic. Construction work continues on the historic Grand Hotel

d'Angkor in the center of Siem Reap town, with the hotel slated to open 52 of its

124 rooms in the last week of December, according to the manager, Gilbert Madhavan.

He dismissed concerns about opening the five-star hotel in the present climate, saying

that rooms are sure to be full.

In opening the hotel, Raffles International is aiming for the upper end of the tourism

market: room rates will start at $310 a night (breakfast and dinner included) and

stretch to $1,900 for one of the hotel's two-bedroom villas.

Madhavan said the villas are aimed at wealthy Americans, Europeans and Japanese -

"high-profile seasoned travelers who are looking for the last frontier".

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