The 2023 edition of the annual Mekong Tourism Forum (MTF) and linked events are underway in Preah Sihanouk province from April 24-28, which industry players have framed as a great opportunity to promote Cambodia’s tourism potential to a broad international audience and inspire people around the world to choose the Kingdom as a travel destination.

Themed “Rethink for Resiliency and Digitalisation”, the 2023 MTF is expected to see the participation of more than 250 delegates from 19 countries.

Linked events to be held during the five-day period include the 51st Meeting of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Tourism Working Group (TWG-51) and an Exhibition on Sustainable Tourism, as well as panellist discussions and presentations with national and international speakers, according to a Ministry of Tourism notice.

The GMS comprises Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, the countries through which the Mekong River runs, from its source high in the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea – referred to as the “Bien Dong”, or East Sea, by the Vietnamese.

Of note, the Vientiane-based inter-governmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) puts the river’s length at 4,909km, which it says makes it the 12th longest in the world and the seventh longest in Asia.

The tourism ministry notice mentioned that the Kingdom will be hosting the MTF for the third time. The 2010 MTF was held in Siem Reap province, while Preah Sihanouk hosted the 2016 edition.

Speaking to The Post, Pacific Asia Travel Association Cambodia Chapter chairman Thourn Sinan remarked that each GMS country is able to host the forum.

Although conceding that the MTF may not be as large as similar events, such as those of the World-Bays Club – also known as the “Club of the Most Beautiful Bays of the World” – including its 2022 World Congress held in Preah Sihanouk in December, Sinan believes the forum offers a decent platform for the Cambodian tourism industry, regardless of its size.

“This event will make a positive difference in the regional tourism sector, especially in the host country, since it can be used as a means to promote new and intriguing tourism destinations through national and international journalists and participants,” he said.

Although Sinan was hesitant to speculate as to whether four million foreign nationals would visit the Kingdom this year – as forecast by the ministry early this year – due to global political and economic instability, he posited that “a main ingredient that could help Cambodia get more foreign visitors would be the introduction of additional flights”.

He reckoned that Asian tourists will remain key drivers of the local industry, at least for the time being.

For context, tourism ministry numbers show that Southeast, Northeast and South Asian nationals – including Mongolians but not Russians or Central Asians – accounted for 77.66 per cent of all international visitors to Cambodia in the first two months of 2023. The corresponding figure for full-year 2022 was 82.53 per cent.

Angkor Tourist Guide Association president Khieu Thy opined that any tourism-related event that Cambodia hosts or participates in could in theory pay off for the sector, by acquainting foreign nationals with the Kingdom’s offerings and convincing them to visit.

Although domestic tourism has witnessed enormous gains in the past few months, the international segment has made decidedly less spectacular progress, with foreign visitors still considerably below pre-Covid-19 numbers, he rued.

“Numbers of international tourists visiting Angkor at this time aren’t very large, but with an increase in number of flights, I’d wager that there’d be many more,” Thy said with a dose of optimism.

In the same vein, a series of airport construction and expansion projects are underway that are anticipated to markedly boost numbers of foreign tourists to the Kingdom and fuel economic growth.

One of these is the new Class 4E Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport, which will reportedly be capable of serving between seven and 10 million passengers annually in the nearer term. The airport is set to be ready for flight validation in mid-May, and to open in October.

For reference, in the “4E” code designation, the number “4” means that the airport’s runway is longer than 1,800m and the letter “E” signifies that the runway is designed for aircraft with a wingspan of up to but not including 65m, and landing gear where the outside edges of the outermost wheels are less than 14m apart.

According to the tourism ministry, 2.277 million foreign nationals visited Cambodia in 2022, down 65.56 per cent from the record 6.611 million booked in 2019.

Thailand topped the list of nationalities of visitors to the Kingdom last year with 853,376, which was up 82.93 per cent over the corresponding 2019 figure, followed by Vietnam (463,995; down 48.94% from 2019) and mainland China (106,875; down 95.47%).

A visitor in the context of these statistics is a person travelling to the Kingdom, “staying at least overnight and not exceeding a specific period for leisure, recreation, business and other legal tourism purposes; and not relevant to the purpose of permanent residence or any remunerated activities”, as defined by the ministry.

The Kingdom welcomed 837,446 international visitors in the first two months of 2023 – down 32.72 per cent from the same period in 2019 – and Thailand took the lead with 274,950, followed by Vietnam (131,196), mainland China (79,435), Laos (41,040), South Korea (39,522), the US (36,585), France (22,748), Russia (21,631) and Indonesia (19,883).

Interestingly, given that January and February accounted for an average of 18.7313 per cent of the full-year total during the 2004-2019 period, this offers a ballpark estimate of 4.471 million for the full-year 2023 figure, which would exceed the ministry’s forecast.

It is worth mentioning that this estimate does not factor in anticipated boosts from post-Covid recovery, the “Visit Cambodia Year 2023” campaign, or the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and associated events scheduled for May and June, which when combined may very well bump that number past the 4.5 million mark.