Tourism experts have lauded the “excellent” improvement in relations between Cambodia and Indonesia, the largest and most populous country in Southeast Asia. They offered the mutual friendship and goodwill that was on display during the 32nd SEA Games in Cambodia as a testament to this.

On the night of May 16, Indonesia defeated the highly rated Thai men’s U22 football team in the final match of the games to claim gold. The tense match ended with a 5-2 score, though it was marred by violence. It not only took 120 minutes to determine a winner but saw the most red cards ever handed out in a regional match.

Following their victory, the Indonesian athletes expressed gratitude to their hosts by singing a song of thanks. The event was hugely significant to Indonesians, with the country’s president taking time to watch the match. He remarked that Indonesia had been waiting 32 years to lift the title of SEA Games champions. When the victorious Indonesian games team returned home, a street parade was held, with tens of thousands of Indonesians celebrating the victory.

On May 21, Sinn Chanserey Vutha, undersecretary of state and spokesman for the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA), told The Post that the enthusiastic cheers of the Indonesian team after their football victory had a positive impact on the way the two countries viewed one another.

He noted that it may take six months to a year to assess whether the Kingdom will see a lengthy uptick in the number of Indonesian visitors.

He suggested that there were three factors at play – the lasting goodwill from the games, the price of tourism services in the Kingdom and air connectivity, which only recently improved.

“We are aware that the SEA Games brought Cambodia increased recognition, with more people expressing a desire to visit, due to its attractiveness and perceived friendliness. However, this may take a while to translate into actual arrival numbers,” he said.

“Indonesia is a large country, both in terms of the region and the world. However, trade and tourism with Cambodia remain limited due to Indonesia’s status as a predominantly Muslim country. Its people may prefer to visit countries with similar culture to their own,” he added.

He also noted that current flights to Cambodia departed Indonesia at midnight, which may not suit tourists.

Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia (RAC), said the sentiment of the Indonesian people underwent a significant shift – from anger when its flag was inadvertently displayed upside down during the opening ceremony of the games – to the love and gratitude that was expressed towards the Cambodian people after the triumph of the football team.

“I believe that the outcome of this sporting event served to enhance the relationship between them. Moreover, with greater exposure to Cambodia, Indonesian people may be more inclined to visit our nation,” he said.

He added that the level of government-to-government relations between the two countries has also improved, with Prime Minister Hun Sen meeting directly with the Indonesian president and expressing his regrets at the unintentional mistake.

Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA), said the reports of closer Indonesian ties were fantastic news, especially following the warm praise the Kingdom’s hosting of the games had attracted.

“The Cambodian people are always in celebratory spirits when medals are won, irrespective of the countries that win them,” he said.

“While Indonesia is a huge market in Southeast Asia, the number of Indonesian tourists visiting Cambodia remains relatively small. One of the reasons for this was the lack of direct flights until April of last year. The number of flights remains low, with only four direct flights per week,” she said.

RAC economics researcher Ky Sereyvath noted that Indonesians are now present in several urban areas such as Sihanoukville, Poipet and Chrey Thom, predominantly working in online businesses. He raised concerns that developing large-scale tourism with Indonesia may be challenging as, despite its large population, it remained culturally diverse.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, out of the 1,602,797 international visitors to Cambodia from the ASEAN region (excluding Timor-Leste) last year, just 75,653 came from Indonesia.