Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - ASEAN Tourism Forum focuses on war and security

ASEAN Tourism Forum focuses on war and security

ASEAN Tourism Forum focuses on war and security

The tourism industry is the engine that will boost economic development in Cambodia,

Prime Minister Hun Sen told attendees at the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Tourism

Forum (ATF).

"The tourist industry is one among the six priority strategies of the government

to push for economic growth in Cambodia in order to alleviate poverty," Hun

Sen said on January 24. "The ASEAN tourism forum and Visit Cambodia Year aim

to show the world about peace in the region."

But it was pending problems rather than current promise that dominated the agenda

of the 6th annual ASEAN tourism ministers meeting in Phnom Penh. A joint statement

by the ten ministers noted that safety and security were at "the heart of tourism".

The leaders pledged to "work together ... in combating terrorism, including

preventive and repressive actions to ensure the safety and security of travelers

in this region".

Among the measures to improve sentiment was a pledge to work closely with law enforcement

agencies to strengthen security at airports, seaports and tourist sites. ASEAN will

also create a webpage for tourists seeking safety and security updates.

Another key focus of the ministerial meeting was the development of tourism, with

an agreement for visa-free travel for ASEAN nationals by 2005. That will be phased

in, beginning with bilateral agreements between member states.

The tourism ministers also met delegates from China, South Korea and Japan at an

ASEAN plus three meeting. The outcome of that meeting was recognition of the need

for promoting closer ties "as it would foster greater tourism exchange, social

interaction and closer economic cohesion in East Asia".

Attempts by members to focus on the lucrative Asian market disguise the fact that

the latest figures show US and Canadian citizens topped the list of visitors to Cambodia

in 2001. Almost 44,000 visitors from North America arrived that year, and 44,800

visited in 2002.

Those figures take on increasing significance in light of the possibility of war

against Iraq. Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth said war would hurt Cambodia's tourist

industry because many North Americans would not travel abroad, as had happened after

the September 11 attacks.

"War is never good for the tourism industry, let alone for loss of life. Tourism

will be affected by war," said Sereyvuth. "We are talking about airlines,

people not feeling secure in terms of the journey.

"In terms of specific market, definitely the American market is the first to

be presenting a problem to us. It is an important source market - around 50,000 Americans

come every year."

Sereyvuth predicted that war would cause an initial drop in visitors across the board.

Traveler numbers from the ASEAN region would likely not be affected, but figures

from the US and Europe would likely drop.

"It is going to slow down our market. Just as it is picking up, then we have

Iraq. What a crazy world this is," Sereyvuth said. "I am concerned about

this, but I'm not worrying to the extent that when the war breaks out the tourism

industry is going to die."

Tour operators and hoteliers also forecast a significant downturn in US visitors

if war broke out. Sok Cheng from PTM Travel and Tours said one-third of his clients

canceled their trips after the September 11 attacks. He is worried that could happen

again.

"I think visitor [numbers] will come down because they are afraid of safety.

If war happens they won't want to visit any country," Cheng said.

Meas Chhay, president of the Phnom Penh Hotels Association, said there was widespread

concern in the industry that American tourists would stay home.

"If there is a war against Iraq, maybe no Americans will come to Cambodia. Many

owners of hotels and travel agents worry about this," he said. "If there

will be a war in Iraq, maybe flights from near there will not come to Phnom Penh."

Tran Khoa from Vidotour Indochina Travel expressed a commonly held view among tour

operators that visitors from Asia and other countries would not be deterred from

visiting Cambodia in the event of war.

The ASEAN Tourism Forum was held from January 20-28 and attended by around 1,200

tour operators, exhibitors, country delegates and national tourism organization representatives.

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