Tourism Minister Thong Khon says all tourists are welcome in the Kingdom, big spenders or not, but warns no tolerance will be shown to pedophiles.
A former Secretary of State for the Ministry of Tourism and permanent vice-chairman of the Angkor-Gyeongju World Culture Expo 2006, Thong Khon came up through the ranks until being appointed to the top Cambodian government tourism post last year. Just back from a tour of Koh Kong, the Minister spoke to the Post’s Susan Postlewaite about the big plans for southern coastal development, the advent of cruise lines, cleaning up Siem Reap, and the difficulties of managing certain types of tourism. He feels strongly about eco-tourism. "Talking about eco-tourism is in my heart,” he says. "I was born in a poor family so I know well about nature. You grow up with the trees.”
What was the biggest accomplishment of the tourism industry in 2007?
In 2007 we received 2.01 million tourists in Cambodia. Almost 50 percent of them came to the temples, another 30 percent to Phnom Penh, and more than 10 percent to the beaches.
What are the big challenges ahead for 2008?
With 1.2 million tourists coming to Siem Reap we must keep the city clean. Not only in Siem Reap town, but the Western Baray, Chong Kneas Lake. We want to develop this as a satellite destination. It is helpful to the hotel industry if the tourists stay longer, extend their stay by one more day. The Western Baray can be a natural destination, with sail boats, kayaking. We want to create a new tourist destination.
Will there be hotels in the Western Baray temple area?
No. In Siem Reap we have the Apsara Authority and we have a master plan already. Hotels must be in the tourism development zone. We have to respect boundaries issued by the Apsara Authority, nowadays supervised by UNESCO.
What are the tourism plans for the south coasts?
There are 60 million golfers all over the world, with 17 million in Asia. Most of them are Korean and Japanese and the golf course is good for golfers. In Siem Reap if they come to play golf they can see Angkor Wat at the same time. But in March we will complete the airport in Sihanoukville. We are extending the runway to 2,400 meters so we can connect the beach to Angkor Wat. Boeing 737s and Airbus can land. Many tourists can come by cruise ship also, and they can connect to Angkor Wat by air. Last month we had one cruise ship (Rhapsody of the Sea) carrying 1,800 passengers. We have a plan to receive more cruise ships at Sihanoukville. They can then travel to Phnom Penh.
Don’t forget that in the coastal zone the infrastructure is well developed from the Thai border in Koh Kong to Kampong Som (Sihanoukville) to Vietnam. We have good transportation along the southern corridor.
In 2009, Sihanoukville will be more developed, with hotels, shopping center, marina, sailing boats, kayaking. We will be ready to welcome the tourists to come to Sihanoukville. Now there are direct flights from Finland to Phnom Penh two times a month. All passengers will go to the beach. Also many tourists come by this checkpoint at Koh Kong, coming across Koh Kong from Thailand, and they extend their trip to go to Sihanoukville. On the Thailand side they are developing Koh Chang and Koh Kout and we expect we will get more tourists from these sites in Thailand to come and enjoy Sihanoukville beaches. Also Kampot. The key to development
of Kampot is Bokor Mountain.
What is your definition of luxury tourism for Cambodia?
We want quality tourists but our policy today is we welcome any kind of tourism, luxury or not luxury.
What about spa tourism?
Spa tourism also belongs to the market. You know the Europeans like swimming, the Americans like to do sports. The Chinese, the Asians, like to go shopping. So we have to develop for all markets.
What is the government’s view of sex tourism?
Cambodia does not have a policy to encourage sex tourism. But the government has a strict policy on child sex. The policy is "No underage sex tourism.” We have no policy to encourage sex tourism, but day-to-day how to manage and how to reduce it.
I think that all over the world, no country can abolish sex tourism. But the question is how to manage it. No country can manage it. But for child sex tourismv, absolutely against.
Which countries offer the biggest future market for Cambodia tourism?
The big three are Japan, Korea, China. Then ASEAN itself. More than 30 percent come from countries of ASEAN. Another 40 percent come from Japan, Korea, China. Maybe 10 percent from Europe. From Europe tourism is increasing at least 20 percent. From England, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Netherlands. These increased 20 to 30 percent.