Phnom Penh tour guide Kim Boral shows off his official Ministry of Tourism license.
In recent years tourism has emerged as Cambodia's second-largest industry after garment
manufacturing. The sector's economic impact translates into roughly 10 percent of
the country's gross domestic product and more than 200,000 new jobs each year, according
to the United States Agency for International Development.
The Asian Development Bank has predicted that tourism will grow at an estimated rate
of 15 percent annually for the next five years.
But despite such encouraging signs, many industry leaders say the government's licensing
of tour agencies and guides reveals a lack of monitoring and transparency - and some
are calling for an overhaul of the system.
Ho Vandy, President of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents (CATA), said some
trainee tour guides choose not to spend their time on training, and bribe their way
"They don't do the training - and pay money to get licenses," Vandy told
In Sary, chief officer of the travel agent office in the Tourism Industry Department
of the Ministry of Tourism (MOT), said there are 150 tour guides in Phnom Penh and
500 in Siem Reap now. The MOT provides training courses and issues both tour guide
and agency licenses. It licensed 300 new tour guides speaking various languages in
Sary said that to get licenses people have to get various certificates, including
a three-month-training certificate. The certificates allow them to sit two exams,
after which they are qualified.
No enforceable regulations
According to International Finance Corporation (IFC), which is part of the World
Bank, a Tourism Law was scheduled to be enacted in 2005, yet it remains in draft
form. In the absence of a Tourism Law, there are no legally enforceable regulations
to govern either the licensing of tourism businesses or the criteria upon which those
licenses will depend.
A travel agency director, who declined to be named, said many applicants do not pass
the exam, and instead pay extra money of around $200 to 400 to get their certificate.
"Lots of students don't go [to lessons] every day because they have to work,"
he said. "The course is full-time for eight hours a day. People have to work
for a living, so they can hardly attend all the lessons."
Vandy said he would write a letter to the MOT and meet them to solve the problem.
"I don't want Cambodia to get a bad reputation," he said.
"They [the guides buying licenses] will do bad things. They can do it easily,
like cheating tourists."
He said CATA was trying to get tour guides to form an association to strengthen their
quality and keep out illegal tour guides who might treat tourists badly. "Otherwise
it will affect companies' business."
A tour guide in Siem Reap, who declined to be named, said some people paid "money
under the table" - around $500 - to get the license without taking the course
or passing the exam, which is difficult.
"Some people never attend any courses and pay money under the table. If they
don't want to learn, they pay and get the three-month-course certificate that is
the prerequisite for the exam," he said. "Because they can earn more later,
they pay a large amount of money for the certificate and license."
Newcomers also have to get a health approval letter from a hospital before they can
become legal tour guides. According to In Sary, the letter should cost around $5;
the tour guide said it should cost $15 to $20 but in reality cost at least $100.
"The hospital control is not strict because they want money," the tour
guide said. "When you pay money, they sign the health approval."
The tour guide refused to give his name as he said he does not want to have trouble.
Chhim Vivath has been a tour guide in Siem Reap for eight years. He passed the written
and oral exam in 1998. "For me it is not fair because I passed the exams myself,"
Vivath said the training provided by the MOT is useful but expensive. "It is
very hard at first for those who want to become tour guides because they have no
According to Sary, the three-month training course costs $140. The official cost
of the MOT tourist guide license in the first year is around $45, then $30 every
Vivath said he paid $200 for training in Siem Reap. "it costs me $100 for the
first-year license. Then it was $40 in the second year." He did not realize
the official cost of both until the Post told him, and he did not know why the MOT
had charged him more.
The licenses issued in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are different. The MOT's Sary said
guides in Phnom Penh can tour in Phnom Penh and all provinces except Siem Reap. The
guides in Siem Reap are not licensed to guide anywhere else: their training has focused
on Siem Reap's many temples with their special history.
Not every tour guide follows this rule. "I have no license as a tour guide in
Phnom Penh, but I also tour in Phnom Penh," Vivath said. He knows the licenses
are different, "but many tour guides in Siem Reap still go to Phnom Penh."
Phalla Chan, managing director of the travel agency Sage Insights Cambodia, agrees
"In Siem Reap, they [the government] always check the license in temples but
there is no checking in other provinces, including Kampong Thom," he said.
Chan said if people want to be a national guide, they have to take a separate one-month
improvement course and after that attend a national guide training course. After
all that they can guide anywhere in Cambodia.
"But in reality, many local tour guides in Siem Reap tour around the country,"
Chan said. He said tourists might not receive adequate information from these tour
guides. He said there are not enough legal guides during the high season.
Tour guides' licenses, as well as specifying what regions they can work in, also
specify the languages they are qualified to work in. Again, few guides follow the
"As long as the tour guide speaks various languages, he guides different language-speaking
tours," Chan said.
Guides examined in specific language
The training provided by the MOT covers the general knowledge of Cambodia, including
its history. Participants are examined in a specific language in which they intend
to work, and after that they get a tour guide license for that specific language,
said Lim Vibol of the training department of the MOT.
CATA's Ho Vandy said unlicensed tour guides are not the only problem. Illegal tour
agencies are a problem too, and he had asked the government to cope with the problem
before. "We found the problem of illegal agencies has still not been solved."
"The MOT should not allow businesses to operate without licenses."
CATA, which has 123 tour agency members, sent a proposal to the ministry that the
illegal companies be fined if they continue to run a business illegally. "We
still have not seen this action," Vandy said.
"Some agencies in Siem Reap operate tour without license, but it is hard to
know who the illegal companies are," said Phalla Chan, who runs his tourism
business with a British partner.
Chan said unlicensed companies should be closed because it is unfair to the legal
agencies. Unlicensed companies had avoided the costs associated with licensing, so
they could often charge their customers less.
To start a travel agency, people have to pay $1,200 to the Ministry of Commerce for
an operating certificate, he said. Then they have to deposit $5,000 into the Foreign
Trade Bank, the partner of the National Bank. They get a certificate of deposit,
which they send to the MOT. After six or eight weeks, they receive their license
to run a tour agency.
Chan said those were only the official costs: in practice extra money must be paid
to get the license. But he rejected a suggestion that this was corruption. "It
is just similar to the US. What they call corruption in the US is like a kind of
tip. People are not happy without tips. It happens everywhere, but it is not a must
and it is just a little. I don't think it's expensive."
An owner of a travel agency in Siem Reap, who did not want to be named, disagreed
with Chan. He said he has just started his business without a license and said he
is not the only one. "Some companies start illegally at first and get the license
He said he would register when the company has clients because the capital needed
to start the business is too much. Yet he said he has no fear of prosecution, "because
I talk with the police and let them know my tough situation."
The IFC said the strong growth of tourism in Cambodia is bringing significant foreign
exchange earnings and employment opportunities.
According to the MOT, in April 2006, the number of tourists was 23 percent more than
in April 2005. Over 1.4 million tourists, nearly 35 percent more than in 2004, visited
Cambodia in 2005, and the number of tourists who visited Siem Reap was up by 47 percent.