The Ministry of Tourism is striving to restore Cambodia’s reputation as a popular tourist destination since the Covid-19 pandemic sent shockwaves through the global tourism industry, reducing the number of international arrivals from the 6.61 million recorded in 2019 to almost zero the following year.

Although foreign tourists are slowly returning – with 3.5 million arriving in the first nine months of 2023 – the ministry’s efforts are taking place against a backdrop of several issues, particularly the negative images posed by some foreign news media or films.

Tourism has long been regarded as one of the main sources of the Kingdom’s economic development, as it creates jobs and contributes hugely to poverty reduction. The government sees the sector as “green gold”.

Throughout the 2000s, most international visitors to Cambodia were from the US, UK and France. By 2019, Chinese tourists stood atop the list of foreign visitors to the country, at 2.36 million. Chinese guests again topped the list in 2020, ahead of Thai and Vietnamese, followed by those from the US, South Korea, Japan and France.

Many countries which depend heavily on tourism were hit hard by the pandemic and are currently feeling the flow-on effects of the Russia-Ukraine war. 2023 is the year where they must determine ways to revitalise the tourism segment, and Cambodia is no different.

In February, the government welcomed the first batch of international visitors, starting with 125 Chinese tourists who arrived after the Chinese government lifted their “zero-Covid” policy.

At the time, then-tourism minister Thong Khon was hopeful that Chinese visitors would play a major part in restoring the number of international guests. He was also optimistic that the new Siem Reap Angkor International Airport (SAI), slated for inauguration later this year – and the under-construction Techo Takhmao International Airport, situated in Kandal province just outside the capital and expected to be fully operational in 2025 – would contribute to an increase in arrivals.

In a recently released tourism roadmap, the ministry forecast that international arrivals will reach 4 million by year’s end and over six million by 2026, a return to pre-pandemic figures.

100,000 involved in online scamming?

How realistic these expectations are remains to be seen, as the Kingdom has been the object of a slew of articles and stories in the international media which focused on issues related to online scamming operations, typically run by foreigners.

This was amplified by a Chinese feature film “No More Bets”, which topped its home box office.

It is possible that these have the potential of scaring off tourists from visiting Cambodia, especially the Chinese, officials said.

In August, Cambodia found itself once again painted in a poor light by the international media, when several of the suspects in a multi-million dollar money laundering case in Singapore were found to hold Cambodian passports.

At the time, the authorities clarified that those who held Cambodian passports had received them through the standard naturalisation process, and that they were responsible for their own crimes.

In September, a Japan-based Nekkei Asia journalist wrote a story titled “Cambodia’s ‘scamdemic’ reputation scares off travellers from China”, describing some of the internet scamming operations that are allegedly committed from Cambodian soil by foreign gangs.

Nekkei cited an August 29 report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which claimed that an estimated 100,000 people were being held captive and forced to work for online scam gangs in Cambodia. The figure was less than Myanmar, where it claimed that around 120,000 people were reportedly being held for the same reason.

Citing unnamed sources, some media reported that “being seen as a haven for online scam gangs that traffic people into forced labour has seriously damaged Cambodia’s reputation in China”. It said this hurt the Kingdom’s efforts to rebuild its vital tourism industry following the pandemic.

Has it affected tourism?

While the authorities deny the accuracy of the OHCHR report, several people working in the tourism sector believe such reports have negatively affected the sector, as well as the Kingdom’s reputation as a whole.

Sinn Chanserey Vutha, spokesman for the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA), said while he acknowledged that some cases of scamming had happened, he did not believe that it reflected the reality of the situation as a whole.

He said such reports had partially affected Cambodia’s reputation, but noted that the number of international visitors recorded so this year equalled 180 per cent of the same period last year.

“What the foreign media have been reporting has caused us some concern, especially because it is not completely true,” he said.

The ministry said it had not seen any impact on the sector posed by either the reporting of the popular Chinese feature film.

Ministry spokesman Top Sopheak explained that newly minted minister Sok Soken has issued his vision statement for the tourism industry.

It aims to lift the Kingdom’s prestige through the theme “Cambodia is a Safe and Warm Tourism Destination”. This will be achieved by the ministry’s “Five-Build” initiative.

The initiative consists of building the country’s fame through attractive promotional campaigns, effective resource management, by improving existing tourism products and improving existing ones, effective internal management and competitive pricing.

To this end, Sopheak added, it will require a concerted effort by every Cambodian citizen, as the ministry will not be able to do it alone.

He said the ministry will also work with foreign tour agencies to share the truth about Cambodia being a safe and friendly destination.

Sum Mab, spokesman for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, explained that the ministry had reached out to the authorities in China for support in shutting down the film “No More Bets”, which was shot in Cambodia without authorisation.

“The reality of Cambodia is nothing like what was featured in that movie,” he said.

He believed that the film not only affected Cambodia’s reputation but that of other ASEAN member nations as well.

Tourism specialists’ suggestions

Experts on the tourism sector conceded that reports of online scam operations and the release of “No More Bets” have negatively affected Cambodia’s reputation. The reports led some people abroad – especially in China – to believe the Kingdom is an unsafe country.

Thourn Sinan, chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Cambodia chapter, said some potential international guests are now hesitant about visiting, which means the industry is missing out on revenue.

“Some tourists from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore – along with some other countries – seem to be concerned about their safety here, due to heavy reporting about human trafficking and online scams. Cambodian authorities should find a way to allay these concerns and rebuild the trust of foreign visitors,” he added.

Cambodia Association of Travel Agents president Chhay Sivlin echoed Sinan’s suggestion, suggesting that the authorities should hold a press conference or other public event to clarify and clear up any inaccuracies in what was being reported.

“If we do nothing, people will believe that the negative things they have heard are true. Then, foreign tourists may stay away from coming to Cambodia for a certain period,” she said.

Foreign media focus on negative

Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, agreed that reporting on online scams and the money laundering case in Singapore – as well as “No More Bets” – had more or less negatively impacted the country’s reputation, particularly in terms of tourism.

He said reports about human trafficking have a strong influence on many people who rely on foreign media as an information source. This is compounded by the fact that positive stories featuring the Kingdom appear to be rarely reported.

“In the eyes of the western media, positive stories about Cambodia are to be ignored, as they tend to pitch negative angles. That particular feature film also added to the negative press,” added Phea.

He opined that what is important is that the tourism ministry manage the promotion of the Kingdom, rather than just blaming foreign media for their reports. They should amplify Cambodia as a desirable tourism destination to the world, through the media or advertising agencies.

“We must also be ready to welcome tourists by greeting them with warmth and smiles once they touch down on Cambodian soil, especially at the airport and border checkpoints. We also need to question ourselves as to whether we have good management in terms of tour agencies, tour guides, souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants,” he added.

Phea urged the relevant authorities to create incentives for tourists to stay longer, while also maintaining social order. At the grassroots level, he called on members of the public to promote a positive image of Cambodia, rather than sharing only bad things.

Additional reporting by Niem Chheng