The private sector in Siem Reap’s tourism industry is optimistic that the new Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport (SAI), set to officially open in early December, will boost international tourist numbers. The rise is anticipated despite the currently low numbers of international arrivals, a lingering effect attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

SAI successfully completed its maiden testing on October 5, with the first official flight slated for October 16. The grand opening is scheduled for December 1, with Prime Minister Hun Manet presiding.

Designed to accommodate a significant influx of visitors, the airport boasts 38 terminals. It can currently handle 7 million air passengers and 10,000 tonnes of air cargo annually, while facilitating up to 65,800 flights per year. By 2040, these figures are projected to rise to 12 million passengers, 26,000 tonnes of cargo and 112,700 flights annually.

Thiem Thuong, president of the Cambodia Chinese Tour Guide Association, said on October 9 that international arrivals surged in the initial two-three months of 2023, coinciding with Siem Reap’s peak tourist season. However, the momentum waned from April onwards.

Thuong praised SAI’s design, commenting on its spaciousness and organisation.

He has noticed a disparity in demand for tour guides, with English-language guides witnessing increased work while their Chinese-speaking counterparts seeing less.

“I’m aware Cambodia has inked several deals with Chinese airlines recently. Assuming no unforeseen major events like the Covid-19 crisis, we expect Chinese tourist numbers to rise from late this year or early 2024,” he stated.

He provided insights into tourist behaviours, noting that European tourists typically stay in Cambodia for four-five days, while their Chinese counterparts average a three-day visit.

Khieu Thy, president of the Khmer Angkor Tourist Guide Association, noted that despite the easing Covid-19 crisis, geopolitical conflicts and global economic challenges have deterred international travel, leading to fewer foreign visitors in Cambodia.

Thy highlighted the fluctuating nature of tourism based on economic and political climates.

He noted that recent months have seen a significant dip in tourists, but he remains optimistic for year-end when international travel typically surges. He mentioned that after a three-year decline in tourism, Cambodia’s investment in new road and airport infrastructure could rejuvenate the sector by the end of the year.

Minister of Tourism Sok Soken emphasised the airport’s role in enhancing Cambodia’s hospitality offerings, during an October 7 inspection of the site.

“This airport signals our dedication to offering top-tier services to travellers. We aim to elevate our services to international standards, which necessitates both hard and soft infrastructure improvements,” he stated.

Recent data from Angkor Enterprise – a state agency which oversee ticket sales at Angkor Archaeological Park – showed significant growth in foreign visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage site. From January to September, foreign ticket sales reached 539,561, generating $24.95 million in revenue, up 302.2% and 365.42% year-on-year respectively.

Overall, Cambodia saw 3,501,981 foreign tourists between January and August, a 250.8% surge from 2022. Despite this growth, 2023’s figures lag behind 2019’s record by 19.7%.

Thai tourists dominated the list, with 1,186,999 visitors, followed by Vietnam, China, Laos, the US, South Korea, Indonesia and France, according to the ministry.