With tourism arrivals already on a downward trend, many in the travel industry worry that a tense election climate will only exacerbate the country's sagging tourist numbers.
Violence or political instability ahead of next month's national elections could scare off foreign tourists, the head of Cambodia's largest travel agents’ organization has warned, urging political parties to keep the peace as the campaign season heats up.
"I beg all political parties, please remain peaceful during the election period,” Cambodian Association of Travel Agents president Ho Vandy said on June 18, a week prior to the commencement of the election campaign. "If we present a bad image, international tourists will not come to our country.”
If tourists cancel their visits to Cambodia due to political instability, it would have wide-ranging impacts on tour operators and others dependent on the tourism industry, which is a major source of jobs and revenue for the impoverished country.
"We saw during the 2003 election campaign that the number of tourists fell by 8 percent,” Vandy said.
One tour operator, however, denied that fears of election unrest would have an impact on foreign tourist arrivals. Tourists have no interest in the internal political affairs of countries they visit, Apsara Tours assistant manager Kem Sin told the Post.
"The national elections won’t keep tourists from coming,” Kem Sin said, "I think tourists don’t want to travel because of the high cost of air fares.”
Kong Sopheareak, director of the Ministry of Tourism’s statistics department, acknowledged the concerns but strongly believed that there would be no violence or harassment of tourists during the upcoming election campaign.
"We have political stability,” he told the Post on June 19. "The national election will not have any impact on the growing number of tourists.”
Mar Sophal, head of the monitoring committee for the election monitor Comfrel, agreed, saying that tourists would not pay much attention to the election as it was an internal matter for the country.
"Tourists aren’t interested in politics,” Sophal said. "But tourism is down at the moment so the numbers might decrease further.”
In the first five months of 2008, 967,383 international visitors arrived in Cambodia, with a total of 2.35 million expected by the end of the year, according to Sopheareak. The tourism industry this year was expected to generate a turnover of $1.64 billion, he added.
Eleven political parties have registered for the election and been recognized by the National Election Committee as authorized to contest the July 27 vote, with the official campaign season to take place from June 26 to July 26.
Eurasie Travel managing director Moeung Sonn doubted that the political campaign would be of concern to foreign tourists.
He said they would be more likely to be afraid of traveling in Cambodia after seeing t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Danger Mines” on sale in the markets.
"I don’t think we’ll have any violence during the elections,” Moeung Sonn said. "Tourists don’t care about [politics]. But it’s more serious that we allow people to print t-shirts warning of Danger Mines, a negative message that could scare tourists.”