The local tourism community has been calling for direct commercial flights between Seoul, South Korea and Siem Reap to offer Koreans a more convenient way to experience the Kingdom’s ancient temples without first having to fly to Phnom Penh or travel to a third country.

The issue was brought up by Thong Rathasak, who was recently promoted as Ministry of Tourism secretary of state, at the 2023 KOPIST (Korea Partnership Initiative for Sustainable Tourism) High-Level Policy Forum, held on April 5-6 in Seoul.

During his trip, Rathasak met with South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism international tourism head Kang Ji-eun to discuss South Korea-Cambodia flights as well as work on a 2024 action plan on MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions).

Ho Vandy, Cambodia Association of Travel Agents adviser and World Express Co Ltd managing director, told The Post on April 6 that most foreign tourists in the Kingdom want to visit Siem Reap province’s Angkor Wat, and that direct flights linking the airport with more international destinations would mean immense benefits for the tourism sector and broader economy.

Historically, Korean holidaymakers have been huge contributors to the Cambodian tourism industry, he said.

“According to plans, Siem Reap’s new international airport [Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport (SAI)] will open in October, and a direct Seoul-Siem Reap route would be fantastic, with flights bringing in passengers from other countries as well,” Vandy added.

Tourism ministry statistics show that South Korean visitors to Cambodia peaked in 2013 at 435,009 – whose had their purpose of visit marked as either “holiday” (416,632), “business” (16,656) or “other” (1,721) – coming behind just Vietnam (854,104) and mainland China (463,123) that year.

South Koreans arrived in fewer numbers each year up to 2021, at just 6,074 (670 holiday; 4,924 business; 480 other).

In 2022, Cambodia received 2.277 million international visitors (1.767 million holiday; 431,000 business; 79,049 other), 2.81 per cent of which were South Korean, or 64,040 (40,397 holiday; 20,000 business; 3,643 other).

This made the peninsular nation the Kingdom’s seventh largest source market last year, after Thailand (853,376), Vietnam (463,995), mainland China (106,875), the US (93,386), Laos (92,609) and Indonesia (75,653).

Similarly, Pacific Asia Tourism Association Cambodia Chapter chairman Thourn Sinan posited that numbers of Korean tourists and investors are not as high as they should be, even in light of Covid-19, and proposed an in-depth look into the reasons why this may be, to develop strategies to remedy the situation.

He remarked that, prior to the pandemic and particularly “before 2018”, Korean visitors significantly contributed to economic growth in the Kingdom, especially via tourism and construction.

Sinan believes Rathasak’s visit to South Korea will augur well for the Cambodian tourism sector, “because marketing is not just about participating in events – meeting with government leaders, the private sector, tourism companies, and the people of Korea is truly essential”.

He agreed with Vandy that direct commercial flights from Seoul to Siem Reap would provide strong tailwinds for the local tourism sector, suggesting that the Cambodian embassy in Seoul as well as the Cambodians working in South Korea could do their part to promote the Kingdom’s tourism potential there.

State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) spokesman Sin Chansereyvutha last month confirmed to The Post that the new Siem Reap airport would open in October following a round of internal test flights scheduled for June, and that the existing complex serving the northwestern province will be “completely closed” afterwards.

However, in response to queries regarding what would become of the old airport, its facilities and site, he merely responded: “That will be the decision of the Royal Government.”