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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A soft re-opening for Sihanoukville airport

A soft re-opening for Sihanoukville airport

First commercial flight on the tarmac at Sihanoukville, an Antonov 24, viewed from the control tower.

History was made with a gentle bump when a President Airlines Antonov 24 landed at

Sihanoukville Airport on April 12, the first commercial aircraft to do so since the

airport closed in 1997; the first flight to begin a new era in tourist aviation and

what is being hailed as the start of a successful joint venture between state and

private sector interests.

Aboard the 48 seater turboprop were a mix of government officials from the Ministry

of Tourism, State Secretariat for Civil Aviation, Ministry of Public Works and Transport,

Ariston Holdings, Nagacorp, and news media.

But all is not what it seems. If this is a domestic airport, why does it have customs

and immigration counters, and baggage x-ray facilities? If there are no scheduled

flights for the foreseeable future and no reliable traffic projections, why was an

"opening" held? Was it a "pre-opening opening" staged to generate

some publicity that might generate bookings?

Officials were surprisingly reluctant to discuss these questions, but it is understood

the expectation is that closer economic ties, including open skies, with Thailand,

Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, will open the prospect of regional flights into, out of

and through Sihanoukville.

A Memorandum of Understanding on an open skies policy was signed last year between

the regional nations and a draft agreement is still being prepared.

For the time being a closer economic link is being developed between the airport

and the new $20 million Sokha Beach Resort, the first of its kind to be built in

Cambodia. This is where Ariston's guests were bused, after the airport reception,

for a guided tour by the Sokha marketing director, Christopher Tan (he is also responsible

for the Sokha Angkor, due to open next year).

The resort, designed using Khmer influences by Malaysian architect Juruhiason, has

a 1.5 kilometer legal beach frontage, where security guards stop itinerant vendors

and beggars from straying, where the tidal debris is removed night and morning, and

where resort patrons may choose to recline on any of 1,000 white lounge chairs lined

up on the golden sand.

The Progress Multitrade flight crew (from left): Captain Sergy Kurochko, director Sar Sareth, and engineer Hean Chan Dara.

Geoff Rider and Pok Sam Ell.

Airport general manager Geoff Rider said: "Use of the airport will be largely

determined by the growth of Sokha Resorts' business. As bookings increase, so will

the likelihood of charter flights.

"Sihanoukville will prosper, I have absolutely no doubt of that. If we can attract

only 10 percent of the number of tourists who are passing through Siem Reap, to unwind

in Sihanoukville, all players in the tourism industry will do well."

Passengers on cruise liners, which are beginning to dock at Sihanoukville, may also

want to fly to Siem Reap.

After a 30 minute flight from Phnom Penh, cruising at 3,600 meters, the aircraft

captain, Sergy Korochko, put the first plane down with no problems (he'd had one

practice landing) on the new tarmac, and taxied to the new terminal building, for

the reception.

The airport - about 20km out of Sihanoukville at the turnoff to Ream national park

and naval base, and allegedly built by the Soviet government, though this is difficult

to verify - was opened in 1967 and used for scheduled civilian (and some military)

services until 1997 when violent conflict between rival government forces, and highway

robberies, discouraged internal travel.

Until its April 12 resurrection, the airport was known as Kang Keng Airport, but

is now officially Sihanoukville Airport.

The SSCA Secretary of State, Pok Sam Ell, said a four-year contract to upgrade the

airport was awarded by the government to Malaysian company Ariston Holdings in 1995,

but the work was not carried out.

"The Secretary of State for the Ministry of Tourism, Thong Khon, intervened

and strongly argued for the airport upgrade as part of the tourism development strategy

for Sihanoukville. In 2001 the agreement with Ariston was re-negotiated and the upgrading

work commenced in 2002," said Sam Ell.

Christopher Tan.

View across the pool to the beach at Sokha Resort.

The strengthened 1,300 meter runway is 100 meters longer than the original, and is

built on a comprehensive drainage system. It will handle only up to the AN 24 aircraft

weight. Ariston and SSCA are talking to airlines about extending the runway by 300

meters to allow larger ATR 72 turboprops to land here from further afield, but this

work cannot happen until after the approaching wet season, says Geoff Rider, a Malaysian-based

Australian. (Note: the statement in our last edition quoting Ariston spokesman Martin

Stanbury as saying it may be upgraded to handle Boeing 737s was incorrect; this aircraft

requires a 2,500 meter runway).

The airport remains owned by the government and will be operated and maintained by

Ariston. Pok Sam Ell pointedly noted that if the airport does not get regular usage

it will have to close.

At this stage it is a domestic airport catering for chartered flights only; it will

take months for customer demand to reach a point where scheduled flights are viable.

Nobody has any projections, but everyone is confident that growth will be constant

and ultimately profitable.

The first flight in was by Progress Multitrade, a new charter airline using a President

Airlines ship, chartered by Ariston for $2000 an hour. The company's director, Sar

Sareth, said he is developing this service between Siem Reap, Ratanakkiri and Phnom

Penh.

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