The Lao national airline’s resumption of commercial flights between Cambodia and Laos on November 1 has been met with optimism among tourism insiders, as an attractive option for extensive trips across Indochina that could deliver a tangible increase in tourism flows between the Kingdom and its landlocked northern neighbour.
Each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, Lao Airlines will operate flight QV 513 departing Luang Prabang at 8:30am and arriving at Siem Reap at 11:50am with a 40-minute stopover in Pakse, and then flight QV 514 leaving Siem Reap at 12:25pm and touching down at Luang Prabang at 3:50pm with a 45-minute stopover in Pakse.
The airline’s website was quoting adult fares starting at $164.50 for a Siem Reap-Luang Prabang trip, and $199.50 in the opposite direction.
The resumption of the flights coincided with Lao tourism minister Suanesavanh Vignaket’s visit to the Kingdom for the 5th ACMECS and 6th CLMV Tourism Ministers Meetings and 1st ACMECS-CLMV Tourism Dialogue, from November 1-5 in Siem Reap province.
For reference, CLMV is an acronym for Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, which along with Thailand are the five members of the political, economic and cultural Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) organisation named after three main rivers in the subregion.
The Kingdom’s Ministry of Tourism welcomed Lao Airlines’ move, saying: “The return of these flights is a sign of recovery for the Cambodian tourism sector.”
Cambodia Association of Travel Agents president Chhay Sivlin agreed, adding that the resumption of these routes would make a material contribution to the sector’s recovery.
She noted that although the number of tourists travelling between the two neighbouring countries has historically been limited, international agencies would often sell travel packages to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, which depend on timely and reliable movement between the Indochinese countries.
“Indochina has plenty of history and a bunch of natural attractions. Linking them this way will broaden the promotion of sightseeing tours around the three countries,” Sivlin told The Post on November 2.
And like its regional peers, Laos has ancient temples, waterfalls, mountains, agricultural sites and loads of other tourist draws, she said.
However, Lao Airlines is not the only player in town, Vietnam Airlines also operates direct flights between Cambodia and Laos, from capital to capital, according to FlightRadar24.
That said, Angkor Tourist Guide Association president Khieu Thy expects many more Laotians to visit Cambodia as Covid effects subside and the global economy improves.
Despite the large numbers of people who cross their shared frontier, relatively few Laotians are visiting Siem Reap province these days, he affirmed.
Although Siem Reap does not border Laos, its neighbour to the northeast Preah Vihear is one of the three provinces on the frontier, along with Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri.
Thy added: “We welcome the launch of any and all flights, whether there are few or many, they’ll bring in visitors, both Lao nationals and foreigners residing in Laos.”
Not only have Lao visitors been relatively few and far between, ministry statistics also show that their proportion to all international travellers to the Kingdom had been on a downtrend even in the years before the Covid-19 crisis emerged in 2019.
Laos had accounted for 10.22 per cent of all foreign visitors to Cambodia in 2014, an annual all-time high, but that ratio dropped to 5.51 per cent in 2019, and to a dismal 0.14 per cent last year, although it has rebounded to 3.06 per cent for January-September 2022 – at 38,783 out of nearly 1.266 million.
Still, in September alone 21,315 Lao travellers were counted, representing an impressive 54.96 per cent of the nine-month total, as well as 7.97 per cent of all international arrivals for the month, or 267,500.
Of the Lao visitors tallied in the first nine months of this year, 37,700 or 97.21 per cent declared “holiday” as their purpose of visit, 1,056 or 2.72 per cent marked “business”, while 27 or 0.07 per cent indicated other motives, according to the ministry.
In terms of absolutes, Lao arrivals peaked in 2017, at 502,219, accounting for 8.96 per cent of all international visitors that year.