Cambodia is among 20 countries selected by Beijing for a pilot programme allowing travel agencies to provide international group tours as well as flight and hotel packages to Chinese citizens, following a three-year ban.

As the days tick down until the programme kicks off on February 6, local civil aviation and tourism industry insiders are eager to welcome Chinese travellers back into the Kingdom.

This comes amid concerns that soaring Covid-19 cases in China could drive the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease.

The other 19 countries chosen for the initiative were Argentina, Cuba, Fiji, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, Kenya, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, New Zealand, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, the state-owned China Daily reported, citing a January 20 notice from the Chinese tourism ministry.

State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) spokesman Sin Chansereyvutha told The Post on January 23 that commercial flights between Cambodia and China had begun to pick up since Beijing dumped its strict “dynamic zero-Covid” regime, which imposed a limit of 15 weekly flights in either direction.

Airlines have been requesting to resume flights between the two countries, while asking to keep the same schedules and destinations as before, he confirmed.

Chansereyvutha expects even more flights to be added after the Lunar New Year holidays.

“Prime Minister [Hun Sen] has announced that we will welcome Chinese businesspeople and guests to Cambodia. We now have Visa on Arrival, and no longer have Covid-19 barriers like they do in other countries.

“We do not anticipate our country to be the top choice for Chinese tourists, but after embarking on trips to nearby countries … [they’ll] visit us too, and we do expect them to come in large numbers,” he said.

Cambodia Association of Travel Agents president Chhay Sivlin told The Post on January 23 that the private sector stands “ready” with the accommodation, travel and food services needed to “welcome back” Chinese tourists after a long “zero-Covid” hiatus.

“Not only is the private sector ready, but even the government has relaxed conditions to make things easier for tourists,” she said, predicting that Beijing’s

pilot programme would considerably increase the number of Chinese holidaymakers travelling to the Kingdom.

Earlier this month, Minister of Tourism Thong Khong had affirmed to local media that Cambodia is “ready” to welcome back mainland Chinese visitors, presenting an estimate for the 2023 total at about “one million” or a more than nine-fold increase over 2022, which he noted was out of the “3.5-to-four million” foreign arrivals expected this year.

And a few days earlier, Prime Minister Hun Sen famously put forth a “two million” aim for mainland Chinese visitors to the Kingdom this year.

Tourism ministry figures show that mainland China accounted for 106,875 of Cambodia’s 2.277 million international visitors in 2022, down from the 2.362 million out of the 6.611 million total tallied in the record-breaking year of 2019.

Of last year’s mainland Chinese arrivals, the majority had their purpose of visit marked as “business”, at 77,595 or 72.60 per cent, followed by “holiday” (28,837; 26.98%) and “others” (443; 0.41%).

To attain these tentative targets, the tourism minister said, the Cambodian government and private sector have developed more roads and set up more entertainment facilities and venues. “We have clear plans and programmes” prepared to cater to Chinese tourists, he added.

Khon also noted that the local community has undertaken Chinese-language-translation and yuan-payment initiatives to encourage mainlanders to travel to the Kingdom.

Nonetheless, he called on tourism players to improve the quality of their services in line with current market trends and developments.