Only one day after the ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) concluded in Phnom Penh, the anti-Thai
rioting across the city on January 29 has blown away the meeting's rhetoric of regional
peace and goodwill.
The violence has already chased off visitors. The sacking of the Thai Embassy made
the news across the world, and will no doubt result in canceled bookings during what
the government has decreed "Visit Cambodia Year."
But at a press conference on January 30, the Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth downplayed
the significance of the rioting. He described it as "very unfortunate",
but said the situation would return to normal in a few days.
"This kind of event is not good for tourism," he conceded, "but I
am not ready to say [whether it] will lead to a decrease in tourist arrivals in the
country. It would be premature to conclude that."
Sereyvuth said the government was committed to social and political stability and
the free market, and pleaded for tourism operators to "give us a little bit
of time - things are improving right now".
"There is no terrorism, there is no war in this country. We have to be clear
about that," he said. "It is a one-off event."
The minister also predicted that the Visit Cambodia Year 2003 campaign would not
be affected, a sentiment many disagreed with. And the irony that a race-based riot
had taken place so soon after the goodwill that characterized the ATF was not lost
on some observers.
The ten tourism ministers had declared they would "stand united in ensuring
the safety and security of travelers in ASEAN". A joint statement desired "the
endorsement of peace and stability through tourism in the region," and reiterated
a commitment to work in close partnership.
But that all changed between Cambodia and Thailand the following day. Thai Prime
Minister Thaksin Shinawatra threatened to send in commandos to secure the embassy,
and said bilateral relations were at an all-time low.
News of the violence caused many foreign embassies to issue security warnings to
their nationals in Cambodia. A US Embassy spokesman said his government had issued
an international travel warning.
"We are encouraging Americans to consider delaying non-essential travel to Cambodia
for the time being," he said. In 2001, the US and Canada provided more tourists
to Cambodia than any other nations. The others in the top five were China, Taiwan
and Japan and France.
And one western diplomat said there was no doubt the riots would hit tourist numbers.
"Images of last night's orgy of violence were broadcast around the world, and
it can't not have an impact on prospective travelers' view of safety in Cambodia,"
Seeing the violence first-hand was enough for some tourists. When the Thai-owned
Royal Phnom Penh Hotel was razed to the ground and the Juliana Hotel was also damaged,
many visitors became indirect targets.
At 7:30 a.m. on January 30, a French couple stood in disbelief amid the burned remains
of their room at the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel. Mr Ester said he and his wife were forced
to flee the previous night to another hotel. They had just returned to find the entire
complex and their belongings destroyed.
"It is terrible, it is like war," Ester said. They wanted to leave the
country as soon as possible.
And a US couple, Joan and David Clark, who were also guests at the Royal Phnom Penh
Hotel, said they too had lost everything. They only wanted to leave and go to Thailand
"We feel very negative about Cambodia," said Joan Clark. "We lost
passports, everything we owned. It seems so bizarre because they've just had this
big tourism thing. I will tell everyone I know not to go to Cambodia."
In the first eleven months of 2002, ASEAN figures show nearly 16,000 Thais visited
Cambodia. That does not include tens of thousands more who visit the casinos on the
Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways were among the buildings set upon by protesters.
Both airlines canceled all flights to and from Phnom Penh on Thursday January 30.
Airline officials were unable to confirm when flights would resume.
The government has predicted one million arrivals in the country this year, up from
790,000 in 2002. It has put much emphasis on tourism as the economic savior of the
country, and sees the industry as a weapon in the fight against poverty.
Meas Chhay, chairman of the Phnom Penh Hotels Association and manager of the Goldiana
Hotel, said the impact of the rioting had been immediate - 30 percent of his guests
checked out the morning after the rioting, all ahead of their scheduled departures.
Cancellations of future bookings had already started to come in.
"It is very bad for the tourism industry. We just got the ATF and everything
was going well," Chhay said. "This will destroy all benefit brought by
the tourism forum. Now we cannot do Visit Cambodia Year any more."