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Sereyvuth - 'Regional travel must be made easier'

Sereyvuth - 'Regional travel must be made easier'


As tourism ministers and industry delegates from neighboring countries begin

arriving in Phnom Penh ahead of the ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF), the Post spoke to

Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth about his plan to attract more tourists.

Sereyvuth also shared his views on terrorism,

sex tourists, poverty and theme


The government declared 2003 as 'Visit Cambodia Year' and is hoping the

international travel spotlight will focus on the country. Sereyvuth says the

January 20-28 forum is a "golden opportunity" to kick-start this


ëASEAN needs a regional mechanism to respond to times of crisis.í

"The ASEAN Tourism Forum itself is an opportunity for Cambodia

to show the world of its potential in tourism," Sereyvuth says. "More than 1,000

[delegates] will see it, and as we all say, seeing is believing.

"On top

of that you have press, international press now reaching 100 in total. They are

going to expose the country to their networks, so the industry will have a

better knowledge, a better understanding of the country."

At the top of

the agenda will be implementing the signed ASEAN Tourism Agreement, which, among

other things, aims to make travel throughout the region easier. Sereyvuth says

that he wants to focus on increasing the number of intra-ASEAN travelers by

pushing for agreement on visa exemptions for Southeast Asian


"I propose to ASEAN countries to ... give a good look at free

travel for ASEAN nationals. That really will help to promote free flow of ASEAN

tourists," he says. "You are talking about 550 million consumers in the ASEAN

region. That is a very strong market, a lot of population. So why don't we look

seriously ... at an agreement by ASEAN countries, to state a date for free visas

for all."

Second on Sereyvuth's list for the tourism forum is regional

safety and security for tourists, in light of the current global focus on

terrorism and last October's Bali bombings. He says the entire region is

affected by conflicts such as that between Pakistan and India.

"The world

we are living in is a very crazy world right now," he says. "Safety and security

for tourists is very, very important right now. Bali is on our doorstep and

ASEAN has to recognize that.

"I don't foresee war in this region of a

Pakistan-India nature or an Iraq war, I don't foresee such an event. I certainly

feel that tourism has no border, but terrorism also has no border. We need to be

careful about that."

So what should be done to counter the threat of


"The answer is a [regional] mechanism that we can put in

place to respond in times of crisis," he says. "So the mechanism is to have

senior officials from all countries to take charge. I want to establish an ASEAN

website that concentrates on giving information to the private sector that will

use that information to give to their networks."

Sereyvuth says that

currently there is no common mechanism to respond to crises and each country

simply undertakes separate, uncoordinated initiatives.

"When Bali came

into it, then we were really struggling to find a way to respond to it, so that

is why I propose this [mechanism]. To me it is more systematic," he says.

Representatives from China, Korea and Japan will join the ASEAN

ministers at a 'plus three' forum. It is a move designed to increase visitors

these countries to Southeast Asia - the fact that millions of "rich Koreans,

rich Chinese and rich Japanese" travel, makes their countries important source


In addition, Sereyvuth explains, ASEAN nations have the

potential to capitalize on the millions of tourists who travel to China every


"China will be the most popular destination by the year 2020 in the

world," he says. "You are talking about millions of tourists coming to China.

The spill-over will be of enormous economic benefit to the whole


Despite the government's attempts to portray Cambodia as an

ideal destination, the problems of loose law enforcement, readily available

visas and a weak judicial system have resulted in many viewing it instead as a

haven for sex tourists.

The Minister of Women's Affairs, Mu Sochua, says

the country is on the child sex tourism map. She wants strict law enforcement in

brothel areas such as the notorious Svay Pak village on the outskirts of Phnom


There has been no shortage of high profile cases - disgraced former

rock star Gary Glitter was deported at the end of last year after he was deemed

a "threat to minors". Several other foreigners are awaiting trial on charges of

sex with underage girls.

Sereyvuth readily admits the country has a

problem with sex tourism, which carries an enormous cost by deterring "normal"

tourists from visiting.

"I'm outraged at this stuff and also at the

internet that gives out information specifically about child sex," says

Sereyvuth. "My proposal is that the authorities must take appropriate measures

in all these places. They must be punished for their crimes and the punishment

must be severe to send a proper signal to these people that they will pay the

price if they do it."

As the major growth industry, tourism is touted as

vital for reducing poverty. Yet many feel the benefits gained stay with private

companies and do not reach the poor.

The minister, however, sees it

differently. He maintains that tourism provides income for medium and small

industry and also to local villagers. Part of that comes via rapid

infrastructure development, which is opening up the country and providing


"Tourism generates a lot of benefits to the guy down the

street, down in the village," he explains. "Be it the vegetable grower, or

handicraft [seller], the moto taxi [drivers] in the village, the spread is


"How many workers are in the construction companies? They are

not rich Chinese, rich Cambodians, not sons of ministers or sons of generals -

they are village people, and now they are getting 70 to 80 dollars a month, and

this is poverty reduction."

The latest figures show a rapid increase in

the numbers of people traveling to Cambodia. Around 790,000 in 2002, up from

604,000 in 2001. Sereyvuth confidently predicts a million tourists will visit

this year. By 2006, he expects 2.2 million arrivals will generate over a billion

dollars in income for the country.

Yet once here, the average tourist

stays just four or five days before jetting off on a package tour or to a

neighboring country. But the ministry has several plans to keep them here


"Number one, I think we should go for conferences, conventions,"

he says. "Number two, we should go for theme parks to cater for tourists, for

Cambodians and for expatriates. This will include entertainment, food,

everything. People will be willing to pay at night or during the day time

because they want to enjoy.

"Thirdly we need to go for more tourism

sites, to provide more choices, to make our market more attractive," Sereyvuth

explains. "That is why we are moving to Ratanakkiri, to the eastern part of

Cambodia, to beautify Phnom Penh, do more things around Angkor Wat, around


Sereyvuth believes that focusing on Cambodia's

particular attractions is very important, but he views the country as just one

stop on the regional travel circuit. As such, its relationships with the nine

other ASEAN countries are vital to its continued marketing


"You've got to look beyond your borders. The tourism industry is

about linking up with all your neighbors," he says. "We are talking about

multiple choices, abundance of resources, convenience for travelers to move in

and out, transnational. It makes sense for tourists to travel and see as much as

they can."

Sereyvuth says that Asia gets 18 percent of the world's

tourism market, America takes 20 percent and Europe takes about 58 percent of

the 680 million arrivals worldwide.

"Regional markets are very, very

important for these countries to benefit from tourism," he says. "In order to

make this region more successful in the world market you have to combine your

resources. You have to talk, cooperate on marketing, on products."


does the need for closer regional links justify the estimated $1.8 million the

government will spend on hosting the ATF? Sereyvuth is adamant that the presence

of more than 1,000 delegates, as well as related media coverage will provide

"priceless" amounts of exposure for the country. He says the event will "go a

long, long way for the Cambodian tourism industry in the future".


outlook is rosy beyond the forum. In five years, he predicts, the tourism market

will have fully developed. He is keen to point out just how important his

ministry is.

"You are talking about millions of arrivals, hundreds of

thousands of workforce in this region, so many skills in this industry. At the

end of the day, billions of revenue," he says. "Tourism is the answer for the

future of this country. It is the most active and most powerful force in the


And, he says, Cambodia has a great deal to offer.


terms of competing in the industry - we have everything," Sereyvuth concludes.

"We are abundant in tourism products, and we have the people of Cambodia with

the Cambodian smile, forthcoming and friendly. It is a major asset for




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