Tourism stakeholders are welcoming the resumption of direct flights between Cambodia and Laos after several years of suspension due to the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn that affected tourism between the two ASEAN neighbours.

Sinn Chanserey Vutha, undersecretary of state and spokesperson for the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA), spoke to The Post about the development on March 14. 

He mentioned that after the commitments agreed upon by leaders of the two countries at the 3rd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in the Chinese capital Beijing last October, and in light of the tourism sector’s gradual recovery, Lao Airlines has decided to resume its direct flights. 

The state-owned carrier will start operating again from the Lao capital Vientiane to Phnom Penh International Airport (PNH) on March 19.

Chanserey Vutha explained that the airline previously operated direct flights on the Vientiane-Phnom Penh route from the 1980s until the mid-2000s. However, due to market factors, these flights were temporarily suspended. 

He said that during this period, the airline maintained its right to operate the route through a code-share agreement with Vietnam Airlines. 

He noted that despite the changes, it has continued to operate direct flights between Luang Prabang and Pakse in Laos and Cambodia’s Siem Reap province using ATR 72 aircraft, with approximately three flights per week.

“The airline will operate using either the Airbus A320 or ATR 72 on the Vientiane-Phnom Penh route, with three weekly flights on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The first flight will land [at PNH] on March 19,” he said.

Sar Sarin, vice-president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA) and founder and CEO of Tovtrip, a Phnom Penh-based excursion planning website and app, told The Post on March 14 that the resumption of the flight reflects the current improvement of the tourism sector after being severely impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.

“We have observed that since the containment of the pandemic, the number of tourists from the region, especially from our neighbouring countries, has increased remarkably compared to other regions,” he said.

“The resumption of Lao Airlines will contribute to serving the flow of tourists and businessmen between our two ASEAN neighbouring nations,” he added.

Thourn Sinan, chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Cambodia chapter, said the reopening of flights is a positive sign for the sector, which has been slowly recovering.

“Cambodia has welcomed many tourists from the region in the past, so the relaunch of Lao Airlines reflects the increasing demand for flights between the two countries. At the same time, both nations are jointly promoting our cultural tourism for people-to-people exchanges,” he said. 

According to Chanserey Vutha, the SSCA issued a flight permit to the airline on February 5 to facilitate foreign tourists and investors.

He noted that it has announced the launch of new international routes in the region as well, including Savannakhet, Laos-Bangkok and Vientiane-Da Nang, Vietnam.

Chanserey Vutha remarked that in 2023, Laos was the fourth-largest source of foreign tourists to Cambodia, with over 370,000, marking a 302% increase over 2022.

“Lao Airlines hopes and believes that Cambodian and foreign tourists will support the direct flight. In the long run, [it] also plans to connect the route to Preah Sihanouk province,” he said.

In 2023, Cambodia welcomed more than 5.4 million foreign visitors, a nearly 140% increase compared to 2022. Visitors from four Asian countries accounted for nearly 70% of the total, according to the Ministry of Tourism.