If China were to phase out its zero-Covid policy and chart a new path towards economic recovery, Cambodian tourism may experience a spike in growth that exceeds all expectations, as the two countries push for more reciprocal direct flights as the pandemic lets up, according to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The premier was speaking on July 14 at the closing ceremony of a key conference on work and plans for post-Covid tourism.

Hun Sen reflected on the repercussions of Beijing’s zero-Covid policy in China, Cambodia and elsewhere, as the restrictive measures put a damper on travel and freight movement to, from and within the officially most populous country in the world. He underscored the heavy reliance on China as a tourism source market, which he pointed out is not limited to merely Asia and Europe.

However, the premier cautioned, the prospects of China withdrawing its Covid policy remain uncertain. He suggested Cambodia regularly monitor the situation and encourage internal travel to offset the slump in Chinese visitors.

With holidaymakers now making an average of about 300,000 domestic trips a week, the uptick in internal tourism has considerably helped resuscitate some parts of industry, and encouraged Cambodians to seize “the opportunity to get to know their territory, rather than going abroad”, Hun Sen said.

He was most likely referencing the “Srolanh Cheat, Trov Skoal Teuk-dei” domestic tourism campaign, which loosely translates as “to love the nation is to know its territory”.

But to support a domestic tourism boom as well as development of associated resources, adequate infrastructure must be in place to ensure the accessibility of new tourist destinations, and provide clean water, electricity and mobile network services, the prime minister underlined.

Speaking at the same closing ceremony, Minister of Tourism Thong Khon said that with Cambodia reopening to international tourism, and other ASEAN countries following suit, the bloc will in all likelihood see a marked pick-up in this sub-sector over the year.

Although Cambodia is expected to receive one million international visitors this year and two million in 2023, Khon warned that the number of arrivals will largely hinge on the outbound trends of the Kingdom’s major source markets for tourists, as well as other factors both internal and external.

With substantive improvements in regional and global conditions and travel facilitation measures in place by next year – especially the removal of China’s zero-Covid policy – the Kingdom’s annual number of international visitors could reach seven million by 2026, or 2027 if the situation falls short of that ideal, he said.

The private sector too is counting on a rise in the number of Chinese tourists and investors in Cambodia, and pinning its hopes on the withdrawal of Beijing’s zero-Covid policy along with an increase in the number of direct flights linking the Kingdom with China.

Cambodia Hotel Association president Din Somethearith stressed how huge a source market for tourists China is for Cambodia, claiming that the East Asian country accounts for “a third” of the total number of international tourists to the Kingdom.

“China’s entry-exit restrictions have made things difficult for Cambodia, even though Cambodia itself has opened up. If China were to reopen, we’d benefit a lot from both tourism and investment,” he said.

Cambodia welcomed 506,762 international arrivals in the first half of 2022, which represents a 394.1 per cent year-on-year surge – according to online media outlet Fresh News – which is more than half-way past the full-year target of one million.

Broken down by method of entry, 240,637 visitors arrived by air, 261,515 by land and 4,610 by waterways, Fresh News reported, citing the tourism minister. The ministry reported on July 12 that these figures represented year-on-year increases of 420.3 per cent, 364.4 per cent and 230.4 per cent, respectively.