TWO weeks ago, the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra opened its doors as the first new five-star hotel to open in Phnom Penh in more than a decade. General Manager Didier Lamoot believes the hotel is evidence of a fresh dawn in the capital and talks about why Cambodian tourism faces a boom.
Why haven’t any other five-star hotels opened in the city in the past decade? The region’s booming, yet Phnom Penh, until now, hasn’t really been able to capitalise on the wider world’s interest.
When talking about Cambodia, people immediately think of Angkor Wat. And who can blame them? It is one of the world’s marvels. For the past dozen years, so much of the interest in Cambodia, for both the leisure and the corporate traveller, has been on Angkor Wat. There’s been so much attraction to Siem Reap — gravitational attraction, inevitable attraction — that Phnom Penh has been left with the second fiddle. But the second fiddle is now asking the first violin for some time on the main stage.
Can Phnom Penh support another five-star hotel? The city already has two, as well as a fairly new 600-room hotel-casino.
In 2004-2005, they were telling me it would be crazy to put up a hotel. The upscale hotels were losing money then. But by 2007- 2008, everyone was saying we’re waiting for you. We need more rooms.
How do you persuade corporate and leisure travellers that indeed, Phnom Penh should be a worthwhile destination?
This is the future of Cambodia. This city is emerging as Cambodia’s hub, as a gateway to Angkor Wat, yes, but also to Sihanoukville and the southern coast. Note that Thai Airways flies into Phnom Penh, not Siem Reap. If we want to develop the country as a real destination, we have to develop the south. That’s how Phnom Penh becomes a hub
So, that is not the way the city is perceived now?
No. According to the official statistics, we had 471,283 arrivals to Phnom Penh in from January to October 2010, while there were 557,145 arrivals to Siem Reap. That doesn’t suggest that the country yet revolves around a hub.
What is the next milestone you’re looking out for in Cambodia’s redevelopment as a destination?
Easy. We need a long-haul flight into Phnom Penh from Europe, the States or from Australia. All of the planes coming in now are with regional carriers.
Bien sur. Yes, we’ve just learned that Air France plans to fly direct to Phnom Penh from Paris three times per week, starting in March. This is big, even if there will be a connecting flight at Bangkok. We have 250,000 Franco Khmer coming in from Paris.
Where are most travellers coming in from now?
From Vietnam, remarkably enough. Tourists from Vietnam are the No1 source of travellers to Cambodia at present. Then Korea, China, Japan. The United States is No5.
What does the opening of the Sofitel mean for Phnom Penh? As general manager of the hotel, we know you’re predisposed to say it’s a big deal, but is it really?
It really is, and for this reason. There has been very little investment in upscale hotel development over the past 10 or 12 years. Well, start with the design. All of the restaurants and bars are singular. There is an individual concept. There will be a service level comparable to what you can have in Tokyo or New York. It will cost. Our Sunday brunch, for example, will cost $45 to $60. But we’re not afraid to deliver luxury. People want to pay money for value.
How can Phnom Penh compete with the draw of Angkor Wat?
Let me go out on a limb here. The first wonder of Cambodia is not Angkor Wat. It is Khmer culture. It is the smell that comes from these kitchens, the smiles you see on these faces. Tourism is still rather new to the Khmer, and as such, it’s a wonder. Every great new destination goes through this. And so in the near-term, travellers to Cambodia will be the beneficiaries of fresh contact with Khmer culture.
What do you expect to be most compelling about the hotel?
I expect that it will be the cumulative effect of all our restaurants. You may not come to the Sofitel just to eat. But if you want Italian, you’ll come to Do Forni. For Chinese to Fu Lu Zu. For pastry, to Chocolat. Each kitchen is led by an individual chef and will celebrate an individual identity. For all of this to happen all at once in Phnom Penh, with eight new food and beverage options at once, that I think will be extremely compelling.
Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra is located at 26 Old August Site, Sothearos Blvd. Tel. 023 999 200.