With the Cambodian population heading towards Covid-19 herd immunity, on the back of successful primary and booster vaccination campaigns that have driven down serious illness and death, Prime Minister Hun Sen recently announced that the Kingdom would reopen in all areas.
Domestic tourism has also witnessed a gradual recovery, which was especially evident during last month’s Water Festival, when holidaymakers made more than 1.2 million domestic trips across Cambodia during four days, seemingly without causing a Covid-19 outbreak.
In addition, Cambodia has stopped requiring quarantine for fully-vaccinated arrivals that meet certain conditions. However, mutations of the novel coronavirus threaten to erode or reverse some of the recent gains seen in the industry, and there are still many questions surrounding Omicron, the latest variant of concern first reported on November 24.
Nonetheless, Angkor Archaeological Park has been unusually quiet with only a few domestic visitors during the pandemic, in stark contrast from a typical year that would see millions of national and international sightseers throng the various temples at the Kingdom’s quintessential cultural and historical tourist destination which stretches over some 40,000ha in Siem Reap province.
During the Covid-19 crisis, the Apsara National Authority (ANA) and provincial authorities have taken the opportunity to revamp infrastructure in the Angkor area and throughout the province to prepare to welcome back visitors once the Covid-19 situation improves. Chief among these undertakings is the $150 million 38-road project.
The Post reporter Hom Phanet sat down with ANA spokesman Long Kosal to discuss the conservation and development works underway to entice travellers back, when the world is free from the health crisis and travel settles into a “new normal”.
What has the ANA done during the nearly two years of Covid?
Our main motto has for the longest while been “conservation for development and development for conservation”, for everything involved in the maintenance and development of the park.
If at any time we fail to maintain a balance between conservation and sustainable development, we’d face problems. This means that these two processes must be kept in equilibrium.
To see why, we need to understand that our heritage is one of the core considerations today for the development of tourism.
Tourism development thus provides other benefits beyond the industry – it is part of efforts to directly and indirectly create jobs and improve the livelihoods of the people.
How has the ANA managed the areas around the temples?
In the interest of beautification and infrastructure improvements in the area of Angkor Wat temple, we’ve set up an automatic grass irrigation system, and pay special attention to the one inside the complex. The grass turns red in the dry season, which may be a bit hard on the eyes, so we hope the temple surroundings will look nice in both wet and dry seasons.
In addition, the area across from Angkor Wat gets muddy in the wet season and dusty in the dry season, but we’ve planted seedlings to spruce it up into an attractive wide green field.
We’ve also rearranged the chaotic jumble of food stalls into a more aesthetically pleasing backdrop.
How is the ANA responding to news of Omicron and its possible effects on international tourism?
Obviously we are worried, but we must look for a remedy. We understand that the government is striving to procure jabs through all available channels to vaccinate the people.
We are also working to avoid issues for visitors to Angkor park, and have taken it upon ourselves to strictly adhere to the recommended Ministry of Health guidelines, particularly the “three do’s and don’ts” measures, knowing full well that the novel coronavirus evolves quickly and is highly transmissible.
Organising tour routes through the park is essential, given that the coronavirus lingers and that we may have to learn to live with it. We’ve set paths from site to site, and will disallow tourists from roaming as they had before, to make it easier for us to manage things.
Armed with the Ministry of Tourism standard operating procedure (SOP), the ANA will train travel guides on dealing with people who do not comply with the relevant Covid-19 preventive measures.
How does the ANA plan to attract foreign tourists after two years of virtually exclusively domestic visitors?
Domestic tourists have played an important role in reviving the national economy. We cannot depend solely on foreign tourists as we enter the “new normal”. We’ve seen that people travel across the Kingdom during major national festivals, showing us that the Covid-19 issue is under our control and that the transition is underway.
The ANA will join hands with the private sector on promotion strategies, the most recent example being the “Angkor Thanksgiving” extravaganza, which offers an ideal chance to lure in travellers. The area is very attractive, all we have to do is prevent Covid from spreading.
We will also work with the Ministry of Tourism to revive the industry in the post-Covid era and the government on other economic recovery efforts.
What does the ANA think of the decision to allow jabbed tourists quarantine-free entry into the Kingdom?
It’s a good strategy, and we are ready. When the Covid situation is under control, we can take further positive steps. At the Angkor park, we are ready, we’ve put up tourist amenities, set up temple tour routes, and have brought our officials, travel guides and other staff up to speed on Covid-19 – we are just waiting for tourists to return.
However, things won’t be as they were before in the immediate aftermath, for a number of reasons, one of them being that travellers to the Kingdom must pass through other countries first.
What do you make of the recent wave of infrastructure projects in the province?
An critical thing that we must look at is creating a seamless merging between heritage sites and Siem Reap town. Everything we organise must tune in with that harmony, which means to make the best of both worlds.
Siem Reap town infrastructure is to undergird the national economy, and a nice and clean locality with dust-free asphalt concrete (AC) roads will be most conducive to the satisfaction of tourists.
At the heart of tourism is memories, and this is vital to reinforcing the confidence of foreign visitors to Cambodia.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.