In the run up to the much-anticipated ASEAN Economic Community integration, which comes into effect at the end of this month, member states, foreign investors and local businesses are looking to the new economic bloc to become a dynamic growth engine and, as a result, propel sectors, such as tourism, financial and banking services, as well as inter-ASEAN trade.
With the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) mechanism, member states will facilitate the free flow of goods, drop trade barriers, increase investment flows and cross-border exchange of skilled labour, with the last two expected to provide a fillip to the Kingdom’s tourism sector – one of the major drivers of the country’s economy.
The sector, which received 4.5 million tourists last year, brought in $3 billion in revenues and was expected to see 5 million tourists this year, though Tourism Minister Thong Khon said in August this could be out of reach, given the economic issues in Russia and the outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in May.
Experts in Cambodia’s tourism sector are hopeful that increased investment and tourist inflows will see a flurry of tourism-related job opportunities, with the onus on improving service standards and the training of tourism professionals to capitalise on this job growth.
“The AEC will impact tourism in a positive way because when they open the economy, tourism traffic will increase,” said Sinan Thourn, chairman of Pacific Asia Travel Association. “The economy will be more open than it is now and restaurants, hotels, and transportation will receive the most benefit because all of the [tourists and investors].”
As the sector continues to grow, it will need workers with a more sophisticated skill set to fill in projected job vacancies, which, he said, will have to be filled by bringing in labour from Vietnam and Thailand, given the lack of trained Cambodians.
This lack of skilled Cambodian workers has increased exponentially, even if one were to discount the effect of AEC, said Carrol Sahaidak-Beaver, director of the Cambodian Hotel Association.
“The ASEAN Training Standards have already been a great help but we need more facilities that offer accredited vocational training as well,” she said.
According to Sahaidak-Beaver, this void of trained professionals was partly because most youth found degrees in medicine and law more alluring, and stakeholders needed to change the perception that working in the tourism sector was only a last resort for many and that there were multiple entry points and prospects for upward mobility in the sector.
However, she said these were not necessarily linked to the AEC integration and were part of the natural progression of the sector up the value chain.
“More important is how we promote Cambodia within the ASEAN community,” she said. “The private sector needs to promote Cambodia better.”
Luu Meng, co-chair of the government-private sector working group on tourism, said there was a need to establish more training schools and centers, and to educate students about the potential the sector holds for them.
“Maybe they don’t understand that this could be a bright future for them, so we should encourage more students to study [in this field], and let them know that they will have very bright futures,” he said.
As the sector opens up to the rest of ASEAN, he said the need for better and professional training was paramount and going forward having an interest in the sector would not be enough to remain competitive.
“Today, you can be passionate, but you also have to have professional skills to open a restaurant,” Meng said. “So it’s not like before where it was easier to do.”
While the development of the tourism sector will encourage more tourists to visit the Kingdom, it will have the added benefit of bringing investors here, some of whom could consider the country a potential investment destination, said Ho Vandy, an adviser to the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce.
“And it will also impact our [local] suppliers because they will be encouraged to provide more quality products,” he added.