SIEM REAP TOWN - Until recently large groups of tourists were just a fond memory
here. Since the official Nov 1 start of the tourist season, the few intrepid international
tour groups who have overcome the fear of Cambodia's renown strife are being welcomed
with open arms. But there are still, say tourism officials, not enough of them.
The four German and British tour groups consisting of 15 to 20 persons each in town
on Nov 12 would normally represent a fraction of the thousands of visitors to the
temples of Angkor during the tourist season, but this year they may represent a large
portion of this months arrivals.
Still, it is a huge improvement over recent months when tourism went into a coma
following the July fighting in the capital.
"I am surprised none of them canceled," said Tea Franna, the manager at
The public relations damage from the sight of pitched battles in the streets of Phnom
Penh on CNN is undeniable as tourist arrivals, which began falling in the beginning
of the year, fell flat in July.
Tourism, which peaked in January with the arrival of more than 7,000 visitors, hit
rock bottom between July and October with a combined total of less than 1,200 arrivals,
according to statistics from the Siem Reap tourism office.
The low ebb came in September: 169 tourists - an average of just over six people
arriving by boat or plane each day.
But most of those who came have been more than satisfied, according to Ly Sarith
of the tourism office. "Some come scared, but they leave happy. They say they
get a whole temple to themselves. Others say it is strange that no one comes, the
temples are so empty."
Franna tried to be upbeat about the slight improvements in the tourist market in
November, pointing to crowds at a few of the more popular restaurants and hotel lobbies.
"This is a start," he said.
But the situation has been hardest for guesthouses that rely on backpackers because
"we do not have many of those kinds of tourists", he lamented.
One guesthouse owner said he received about "one visitor each month" in
the months following the July fighting and that the threat of closure continues to
Another, who considers himself fortunate, said he is satisfied, for the moment, if
he has one customer in his guesthouse each night.
Establishments such as First Deputy Governor Noe Som's 60-room Neak Pean Inn continue
to plod along with only five people in its 60 rooms, according to staff.
Occupany rates in some of the top-quality hotels - which were struggling along at
5-10% in October - jumped to 20-25% in the first two weeks of November, Franna said.
Still, such figures represent about one-third of last year's rates.
The lean months have seen a corresponding fall in business for moto-taxi drivers,
who rely heavily on tourist dollars. One driver, who said he does better than most,
said his income shriveled from well over $100 per month to less than $50.
With the arrival of the tourist season, industry workers are ready for any improvement
they can get.
They are hoping that political instability and security worries won't reduce December
reservations for 40-45% of the rooms in the main hotels - just over half of last
year's occupancy - through cancellations.
While December looks to be the best month of the second half of the year, there is
little hope for January when bookings are "almost zero," according to Franna.
In the medium-term, tourism prospects are likely to depend on whether there is more
fighting in the north of the province.
"If there is more fighting, it will be bad news for us. No one in the world
wants fighting, but... everyone knows there is going to be a dry season offensive,"
But not all are pessimistic. Construction work continues on the historic Grand Hotel
d'Angkor in the center of Siem Reap town, with the hotel slated to open 52 of its
124 rooms in the last week of December, according to the manager, Gilbert Madhavan.
He dismissed concerns about opening the five-star hotel in the present climate, saying
that rooms are sure to be full.
In opening the hotel, Raffles International is aiming for the upper end of the tourism
market: room rates will start at $310 a night (breakfast and dinner included) and
stretch to $1,900 for one of the hotel's two-bedroom villas.
Madhavan said the villas are aimed at wealthy Americans, Europeans and Japanese -
"high-profile seasoned travelers who are looking for the last frontier".