The tourism industry is the engine that will boost economic development in Cambodia,
Prime Minister Hun Sen told attendees at the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Tourism
"The tourist industry is one among the six priority strategies of the government
to push for economic growth in Cambodia in order to alleviate poverty," Hun
Sen said on January 24. "The ASEAN tourism forum and Visit Cambodia Year aim
to show the world about peace in the region."
But it was pending problems rather than current promise that dominated the agenda
of the 6th annual ASEAN tourism ministers meeting in Phnom Penh. A joint statement
by the ten ministers noted that safety and security were at "the heart of tourism".
The leaders pledged to "work together ... in combating terrorism, including
preventive and repressive actions to ensure the safety and security of travelers
in this region".
Among the measures to improve sentiment was a pledge to work closely with law enforcement
agencies to strengthen security at airports, seaports and tourist sites. ASEAN will
also create a webpage for tourists seeking safety and security updates.
Another key focus of the ministerial meeting was the development of tourism, with
an agreement for visa-free travel for ASEAN nationals by 2005. That will be phased
in, beginning with bilateral agreements between member states.
The tourism ministers also met delegates from China, South Korea and Japan at an
ASEAN plus three meeting. The outcome of that meeting was recognition of the need
for promoting closer ties "as it would foster greater tourism exchange, social
interaction and closer economic cohesion in East Asia".
Attempts by members to focus on the lucrative Asian market disguise the fact that
the latest figures show US and Canadian citizens topped the list of visitors to Cambodia
in 2001. Almost 44,000 visitors from North America arrived that year, and 44,800
visited in 2002.
Those figures take on increasing significance in light of the possibility of war
against Iraq. Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth said war would hurt Cambodia's tourist
industry because many North Americans would not travel abroad, as had happened after
the September 11 attacks.
"War is never good for the tourism industry, let alone for loss of life. Tourism
will be affected by war," said Sereyvuth. "We are talking about airlines,
people not feeling secure in terms of the journey.
"In terms of specific market, definitely the American market is the first to
be presenting a problem to us. It is an important source market - around 50,000 Americans
come every year."
Sereyvuth predicted that war would cause an initial drop in visitors across the board.
Traveler numbers from the ASEAN region would likely not be affected, but figures
from the US and Europe would likely drop.
"It is going to slow down our market. Just as it is picking up, then we have
Iraq. What a crazy world this is," Sereyvuth said. "I am concerned about
this, but I'm not worrying to the extent that when the war breaks out the tourism
industry is going to die."
Tour operators and hoteliers also forecast a significant downturn in US visitors
if war broke out. Sok Cheng from PTM Travel and Tours said one-third of his clients
canceled their trips after the September 11 attacks. He is worried that could happen
"I think visitor [numbers] will come down because they are afraid of safety.
If war happens they won't want to visit any country," Cheng said.
Meas Chhay, president of the Phnom Penh Hotels Association, said there was widespread
concern in the industry that American tourists would stay home.
"If there is a war against Iraq, maybe no Americans will come to Cambodia. Many
owners of hotels and travel agents worry about this," he said. "If there
will be a war in Iraq, maybe flights from near there will not come to Phnom Penh."
Tran Khoa from Vidotour Indochina Travel expressed a commonly held view among tour
operators that visitors from Asia and other countries would not be deterred from
visiting Cambodia in the event of war.
The ASEAN Tourism Forum was held from January 20-28 and attended by around 1,200
tour operators, exhibitors, country delegates and national tourism organization representatives.