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The scramble to Siem Reap

Tourists review a map before visiting the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap.
Tourists review a map before visiting the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap. This month, many regional airlines are launching flights to Siem Reap as the tourist season begins to swell. KARA FOX

The scramble to Siem Reap

As Cambodia’s busy tourism season approaches, domestic and regional airlines are scrambling to offer Siem Reap routes in a bid to capitalise on the growing number of visitors to the Angkor Wat gateway.

The expansion means travellers in the region will have a wider variety of choices, and as competition tightens when the influx occurs around November, potentially lower prices.

In the past several months, players have entered the fray at a consistent rate. The latest, Korean carrier Air Busan, a subsidiary of Asiana Airlines, plans for scheduled daily flights between Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, and Siem Reap, according to Vann Chanty, director of the Air Transport Department of Cambodia’s State Secretariat of Civil Aviation.

“Now they are in the process to apply for what we call the landing permit,” he said, adding that it takes around two months to be issued.

Chanty said Chinese carrier Juneyao Airlines has also sent its application for a landing permit, targeting non-stop scheduled flights between Shanghai and Siem Reap. The private airline will be joined by Chinese flag carrier Air China, which envisions adding direct flights from Beijing as early as November.

The list continues with Dragonair, a Hong Kong-based subsidiary of Cathay Pacific, which announced last month it will start direct routes between Hong Kong and Siem Reap on October 29, offering the seasonal service three times a week.

Airlines that aren’t adding the routes are in expansion mode. Singapore-based Silk Air, already operating a daunting 10 Singapore-Siem Reap legs weekly, wants to introduce an 11th into the mix, according to its website.

Ang Kim Eang, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents, said the number of carriers planning to launch flights to Siem Reap is particular high this year.

He said the session for the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, hosted this year in Phnom Penh, and the fact that Cambodia held the chairmanship for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last year, played a role in attracting “the world to fly to Siem Reap”.

The increase follows a rising number of tourists visiting the city, home to the 12th-century Angkor Wat ruin. According to Norinda Khek, a spokesman for Cambodia Airports, the company managing airports in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, 1.5 million passengers landed in Siem Reap between January and July this year, a 22.5 per cent year-on-year increase.

In July alone, 169,400 passengers touched ground in Siem Reap, an 18 per cent increase compared with the same month last year.

According to Lav Heng, general manager of VLK Royal Tourism Co Ltd, more airlines flying to Siem Reap means more competition, and that could lower fares. The downside is that, as tourism industry officials have argued, the concentration on Siem Reap detracts from Cambodia’s lesser-known holiday sites in the northeastern provinces, coastal areas and the vicinity around Siem Reap.

“They just come to see the temple, that’s all,” Heng said.

“We cannot keep guests.… They just come to stay one night or two nights, then go back. That is not so good for us.”

Heng also said the increase in flights to Siem Reap does not come alongside a growth in accommodation options in the popular town, and during peak season there are not enough rooms.

“Even if we have more flights and the flights are very cheap, the occupancy is a problem,” he said.

One future entry has attracted particular notice.

On October 1, budget carrier Thai AirAsia will fly between Bangkok and Siem Reap at round-trip fares of about $110. Bangkok Airways charges roughly $315 for the flight, which lasts about an hour each way. The looming competition has sparked talk of a price war.

The regional airlines are joined by local chartered carrier Wat Phnom Airlines, which had its maiden flight from Siem Reap to Taipei last month. National carrier Cambodia Angkor Air announced earlier this year that it would take off between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap five times a day starting in July.

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