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Outbound tourism picks up

Vatanak Chheng, director of Imperial Rina Group, speaks to the Post from his office in Phnom Penh
Vatanak Chheng, director of Imperial Rina Group, speaks to the Post from his office in Phnom Penh. VIREAK MAI

Outbound tourism picks up

As the only web-based outbound travel agency in Cambodia, Imperial Rina Group struggled to make inroads in a cash economy when it first started out three years ago. But using a mix of online and in-person payments, IRG has since enjoyed booking growth of 20 per cent from 2011 to 2012. Director Vatanak Chheng discussed Cambodia’s travel trends with the Post’s Laura Ma

Why start IRG?
When I moved back to Cambodia with my sister in 2010, there was a big trend of people over here going overseas, which really started in 2006 and 2007. Mostly it was all-inclusive group tours. So smaller families, individual travellers and business people who wanted to go abroad found it hard to get affordable accommodation overseas. We saw an opportunity to bridge that gap and knew there was a niche market for it.

What were some of the challenges?
Hotel bookings here aren’t typically done online. I think there is a fear of it. Our initial idea was developing something online and educating people to use it. But it didn’t catch on. We had to change the process, making online booking more like a cash-based payment. The site is more of a marketing tool for price comparison. After which they can contact us to book and we receive their payment either by bank transfer, Wing or collecting the money directly. It’s going to be a long haul before people start to use credit cards to make purchases online for Cambodia.

Is travel picking up here?
From 2011 to 2012, we saw about a 12 per cent increase in outbound travel. In the first quarter of this year, we saw about five per cent growth. In this period, IRG also saw growth [in bookings] of 23 per cent.

How does this trend reflect Cambodia’s emerging market?
It is a reflection of how the economy is faring on a global scale. The more we are integrated, the more we are globalised, meaning foreigners do business in Cambodia and Cambodians go overseas for business. It also reflects what people can afford. Travelling is a luxury still in Cambodia. For this to grow, our middle class needs to grow.

Does culture affect outbound travel here?
Social media plays an important role. People see “what’s cool” to visit on Instagram [and Facebook]. Cambodians are also becoming more creative in terms of the money they are spending and the value they are getting out of it. Instead of spending a couple hundred dollars going to Sihanoukville, they can spend the same value to see something completely different.

Is travel going to take off or is it still in the early stages?
We lack a young subset that can afford to travel overseas. Kids today between 18 and 25, when they enter an older demographic, they will be avid travellers. They will have stories to tell their kids, their kids will tell their friends and that will become a trend. But I think it’s going to be years before travel becomes the norm rather than a luxury.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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