C HARTER flights are now the government's favored option to open Siem Reap to international
air travel, according to aviation and tourism officials.
"The government has considered opening Siem Reap to regional flights, only for
charter flights, not for scheduled flights," said Tourism Undersecretary of
State, Sok Chenda Sophea.
The plan to allow charter flights to directly fly to Siem Reap follows the "open
skies" policy announced by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen in late July, which
opened Cambodia's domestic airspace to competition.
Government officials believe that the Siem Reap plan would inject a much needed boost
to Cambodia's stricken tourist industry which has experienced a slump of up to 80
percent in numbers since the July 5 and 6 fighting.
Nevertheless, the government still confronts a number of obstacles in implementing
the Siem Reap scheme - not least the agreement with Societe Concessionaire de L'Aeroport
(SCA), the company operating Pochentong under contract to the government.
The SCA contract gives the operator a ten-year "exclusivity" clause, guaranteeing
that Pochentong remain the sole international gateway to Cambodia until 2005.
Tourism Undersecretary Sok Chenda confirmed that the government is holding discussions
with SCA over the contract, which would require renegotiation before Siem Reap could
open to international air services.
"If we want to do something in Siem Reap as planned we have to make a deal with
SCA. How, I don't know," said Chenda.
"In any contract in the world there is always a final provision, one article
always says that this contract can be amended if the two parties agree. I understand
this contract is not locked."
Asked whether a renegotiated deal would include giving SCA the right to operate the
Siem Reap airport Sok Chenda said, "First is SCA interested to do it - are they,
I don't know."
The official added there were many terms and conditions of the contract that could
Representatives of SCA declined to comment on the discussions.
Charter flights using small planes would also avert the possibility of damage to
the Angkor Wat temples caused by "resonance" from large carriers, according
to Civil Aviation Authority head, Pok Sam El.
The Siem Reap scheme, which could see charter groups of passengers flying in and
out of the town from Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City within a day, has been criticized
in some quarters for being financially unsound.
Opposition parliamentarian Thach Reng, who took Hun Sen to task over the plan in
the National Assembly, maintains that allowing international travelers direct access
to Siem Reap would result in a net loss for Cambodia's tourist industry.
"They can come in the morning by plane and go back on the same day. They can
bring their own lunch with them, they will only spend five or ten dollars,"
said Reng, who estimated that tourists visiting Siem Reap and Angkor Wat via Phnom
Penh spent between $400 and $500 dollars.
"That's money for the people not for the government. But Hun Sen said if we
have ten dollars that's better than nothing. That's not a good answer," said
"I said if you have some reason or discreet arrangement, if you have something
in exchange, please let us know. It has to be in the spirit of transparency,"
Some travel agents in Phnom Penh also questioned the wisdom of allowing international
flights to land in Siem Reap, saying that not only could the plan result in "definitely
less" tourist dollars to Cambodia but also in the underdevelopment of the country's
"If you have people landing in Phnom Penh you have a good chance of showing
them other parts of Cambodia. If they open the most interesting place [to direct
flights], it's possible other things will not develop. Who wants to invest in Rattanakiri
if they see the influx in Siem Reap," said one major travel agent.
Sok Chenda countered critics of the plan, arguing that the competition would encourage
tourist industry operators in Phnom Penh to work harder at promoting their services.
"Phnom Penh has enough attractions if people highlight them. Before it was just
crossing arms and making money, now they have to do the work," said Chenda.