New facilities at Pochentong International Airport await the rising tide of tourists.
A 33 percent rise in the number of tourists coming to Cambodia in the first half
of this year is partly the result of improved political stability and security, according
to the Ministry of Tourism (MoT).
"Cambodia has become a new destination for tourists, because it is more stable
since the 1998 elections," said Under-Secretary of State Sisowath Chivannariddh.
"Visitors feel safer than ever before when traveling to Cambodia."
MoT figures showed that 55,000 visitors were Asian, almost half of whom came from
China, Taiwan and Japan. Around 27,000 visited from Europe and another 20,000 came
from the US and Canada.
Cambodia has seen a sharp revival in tourist numbers since 1997, when the coup and
the Asian economic crisis scared visitors away. That year had started well, with
tourist numbers at a record high, but it took two more years to recover to pre-coup
levels, said Khek Norinda, spokesman for Societe Concessionnaire de l'Aeroport (SCA),
which operates Phnom Penh's airport.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's announcement in 1999 of an "open skies policy"
has also helped boost numbers, said Chivannariddh. However, MoT statistics confirmed
that many tourists were by-passing Phnom Penh and flying directly to Siem Reap.
He said that the capital should see more tourists when the airport upgrade, slated
for completion mid-2002, is finished.
SCA, which is funding the airport upgrade as part of a contract negotiated with the
government, said that investment was essential in order to meet international standards
provided in neighboring countries.
Chivannariddh also noted a 60 percent increase in tourists arriving by land and sea
- a common method of entry with backpackers.
However, the biggest increase in tourist numbers was recorded in Siem Reap, home
to the famous Angkor Wat temple complex: MoT figures showed that arrivals almost
doubled compared with the first six months of 2000.
The improved tourist numbers have benefited more than government coffers. The number
of travel agencies registered in the capital has increased by half since March to
almost 150. The ministry said that the sharp increase is not limited to Phnom Penh:
there were now more agencies in cities like Siem Reap.
"Their clients want to know the country through its history and cultural heritage,"
said Kek Norinda, explaining the sudden proliferation of travel agencies.
"Cambodia offers many cultural sites such as the temples at Angkor, wildlife
parks and waterfalls. In the past 10 years sites that were closed because of the
Khmer Rouge have re-opened."
One surprising statistic the MoT was keen to highlight was a higher number of Cambodian-Americans
returning to the country.
"They visit relatives and they bring a lot of money with them," said Ouk
Siphan, Deputy General Director at the MoT.
"Some bring $6,000 in cash and a luggage full of food because they think that
Cambodia does not have food. Then they find that food here is cheap and delicious,
and they even take dried fish back to the US."