Weighty overall gains could be on the horizon for the Cambodian and Lao aviation and tourism sectors after a key meeting of civil aviation authorities set in motion efforts to step up cooperation and encourage the launch of additional commercial flights between the two neighbouring countries.

On March 1, State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) chief Mao Havannall met with a Department of Civil Aviation of Lao PDR (DCAL) delegation to strengthen collaboration between the two countries in the civil aviation space.

SSCA spokesman and undersecretary of state Sin Chansereyvutha told The Post that the current level of private sector involvement in the development of Laos’ civil aviation sector is rather low, and that Vientiane is eager to gain insights into conditions in Cambodia, and learn from the Kingdom’s experience, particularly in terms of good governance and management.

Leaders of the SSCA and DCAL also inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) aimed at increasing flights between the two countries, he said, noting that Vietnam Airlines currently operates daily Phnom Penh-Vientiane flights, and that Lao Airlines has routes from Siem Reap to Pakse and Luang Prabang thrice weekly each.

Chansereyvutha remarked that Cambodia’s civil aviation sector has been growing steadily, in terms of traffic, air traffic control, and private company presence.

Pacific Asia Travel Association Cambodia Chapter chairman Thourn Sinan argued that any transport links between the two countries would be mutually beneficial, even given the small size of Laos’ economy and relatively limited numbers of Lao visitors to the Kingdom.

A fair share of Lao holidaymakers visit the temples of Siem Reap province, while others enter overland via Stung Treng and continue on to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, he said, holding out for hope that additional flights could markedly bump up travel between the two countries, even if not spectacularly so.

Angkor Tourist Guide Association president Khieu Thy mentioned that Lao sightseers at Siem Reap’s temple sites are far fewer than their Thai and Vietnamese counterparts, despite the fact that Laos also shares a border with Cambodia.

Conversely, Cambodian visitors to Laos too remain few and far between, he said, commenting that overseas travel trends are shaped by a country’s living standards and economy.

The Laotian Times, citing the Lao tourism ministry, reported that 1.294 million foreign nationals visited Laos last year, and that a 1.4-million goal has been set for 2023. Although the report did not provide a 2022 figure for Cambodia, it seemed to imply a number smaller than the US’ 18,447, which was just 1.43 per cent of the total.

Cambodia is also mulling at least one high-speed railway to Laos, to enhance bilateral cooperation as well as create another option for shipping goods to China.

The Kingdom welcomed nearly 2.277 million international visitors last year, representing a 65.56 per cent drop from 6.611 million in record-breaking 2019 but an increase by a factor of 11.59 over 2021’s 196,495, according to the tourism ministry.

Of the 2022 total, the majority had their purpose of visit marked as “holiday”, at 1.767 million or 77.60 per cent, followed by “business” (431,000; 18.93%) and “others” (79,049; 3.47%).

Laos’ share of all international arrivals to the Kingdom slipped from a peak of 10.22 per cent at 460,191 in 2014 (457,615 holiday; 302 business; 2,274 others) to 8.96 per cent at 502,219 in 2017 (485,477 holiday; 498 business; 16,244 others) – although the latter was the only year in which Lao visitors topped half a million.

That ratio further fell to 5.51 per cent at 363,951 in 2019 (353,782 holiday; 1,162 business; 9,007 others), and to 4.07 per cent at 92,609 in 2022 (90,350 holiday; 2,214 business; 45 others).

Last year, Laos was the fifth largest source market after Thailand (853,376), Vietnam (463,995) mainland China (106,875) and the US (93,386), which were respectively up 82.93 per cent, down 48.94 per cent, down 95.47 per cent, and down 62.47 per cent from their corresponding 2019 figures.