The number of international tourists visiting Cambodia increased by more than 20​ per cent in the first 5 months of the year, a positive sign given the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing global crises, such as the conflicts in Europe and the Middle East.

According to figures from the Ministry of Tourism, the first five months of 2024 saw more than 2.64 million international tourist arrivals, an increase of 22.1 percent compared to the same five-month period in 2023, when 2.1 arrivals were recorded.

Although this figure represents a steady recovery, it is noticeably down on those attributed to neighbouring countries.

Thailand, with nearly 15 million international tourist arrivals, saw an increase of 38 per cent in the first five months of 2024 over the same period last year, according to Thai media outlet The Bangkok Post.

In Vietnam, the number of international tourists reached nearly 7.6 million in the same period, an increase of 64.9 per cent over the previous year. This number surpassed the pre-pandemic level by 3.9 per cent, according to the Vietnam National Authority of Tourism.

A UN Tourism update reported that international tourism reached 97 per cent of 2019 pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2024, with Africa and Europe exceeding pre-pandemic levels. An estimated 285 million tourists travelled internationally during the period, a jump of 20 percent over the same period last year.

Arrivals in Asia and the Pacific recovered to 82 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of the year, after reaching 65 per cent in 2023, it added.

While there are many factors linked to Cambodia’s slow recovery, some analysts fear that the Kingdom’s international reputation may have suffered due to widespread reporting of online scam operations and claims of kidnapping and human trafficking.

Online scams

The US Institute of Peace recently released a report on online scamming and human trafficking in Southeast Asia, including Cambodia. It claimed that such scams are increasing, with many unsuspecting victims promised lucrative jobs with high salaries, only to find themselves trapped in secure compounds and forced to work as scammers for criminal enterprises.

Conditions in some of these so-called “scam compounds” are reported to be brutal with the effectively-trafficked workers forced to work long hours and often prevented from leaving the premises. In some of the most extreme conditions reported, it is alleged that workers who fail to meet their targets are subject to torture, with claims that conditions are so bad that some trafficked workers have taken their own lives.

The report suggested that these criminal organisations have earned up to $12.5 billion from their operations in Cambodia. In addition to their direct impact on victims around the world, their activities have had a detrimental effect on the Kingdom’s already struggling tourism industry. 

Although there has been no reporting that the operations of these criminal gangs have directly affected any foreign tourists, several potential guests of the Kingdom who have never been here have expressed concerns about their personal safety once on Cambodian soil, even suggesting that they are afraid they may be kidnapped.

“I have heard negative comments from foreigners about Cambodia, most of whom were very worried about online scams,” said Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, in just one example of the concerns that have been raised.

Some embassies ​​have issued travel advisory warnings about the need to be wary of online scams and the gangs who operate them.

The Indian embassy – which just facilitated the return to their home country of several hundred Indian nationals who were scammed into working here illegally – even features a pop-up warning notice that appears when their website is opened.

“It has come to our attention that Indian nationals, lured by fake promises of lucrative job opportunities ... are falling into the trap of human traffickers. They are coerced to undertake online financial scams and other illegal activities,” it says.

Similarly, the Chinese embassy has warned its citizens to be careful about being caught up in illegal gambling operations, especially in such locations as Sihanoukville, Poipet, which borders Thailand, and Bavet, on the border with Vietnam.

In 2019, the Chinese embassy reminded its citizens that many Chinese were deceived by gambling companies, with the promise of high salaries, round-trip airfares, visas, food and accommodation. It noted that few such offers were genuine.

Cambodia is safe

In February, controversial influencer “Goodnight Chicken” and an accomplice were arrested in Sihanoukville after livestreaming a fake kidnapping attempt. Both men were sentenced to two years in jail after being found guilty of “incitement to cause chaos to social security”.

“They entered Cambodia to produce slanderous videos related to human trafficking … and detention with torture,” said a statement released by Preah Sihanouk provincial court at the time.

Touch Sokhak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, reiterated that Cambodia is a safe tourist destination. He noted that there has not been a single recorded instance of a tourist becoming a genuine victim of online scamming gangs or kidnappings.

Touch Sokhak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. Supplied

“I appeal to tourists of all nationalities to believe in Cambodia, do not give any credence to defamatory statements about the Kingdom,” he said.

“Please check local media to verify the actual situation on the ground. When you visit, you will understand how safe it is here. We have many historical sites and eco-tourism activities, as well as other attractions,” he added.

Sokhak also claimed that the number of online fraud gangs has decreased significantly, although conceded that some still appear to be operating. The government has been working to crack down on these crimes since the previous government mandate, he added.

“The nature of these online scams is mostly to deceive foreigners whose information falls into the hands of the criminals. Many people in other countries are unaware of how these scams work, making them more prone to becoming victims. Tourists should not worry about their safety in the Kingdom of Cambodia,” he said.

He noted that the government, and the interior ministry in particular, has intensified its efforts to curb these types of crimes, which has deterred many of the perpetrators.

He acknowledged that there is some offending among the local population, but described these as small cases that would not affect visitors, and no different from any other country in the world.

He added that Cambodia has always paid close attention to ensuring the safety of its guests, such as the establishment of a dedicated tourism police force.

Reduced numbers ‘economic’, rather than fear-driven

Hong Vanak, an economic researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, suggested that the spread of negative news about Cambodia may affect the feelings of potential visitors, perhaps making them consider alternative destinations.

Hong Vanak, an economic researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia. Supplied

He accepted that online scamming, to whatever extent, exists in Cambodia, but believed it was no different from any other country around the world. He said in some countries, the situation is even worse. 

Vanak noted the government’s efforts to suppress such crimes, adding that they also hurt investor sentiment.

“Small issues like these crimes are not the deciding factor in choosing a tourism destination. Many tourists opt to visit Cambodia once they speak to people who have actually been here. Once they receive accurate information, they are more than happy to travel here,” he said.

Vanak added that a visitor’s decision was based more on economic sentiments than anything else, and believed that the low number of tourists to Cambodia is due to the effects left behind by the pandemic and the current conflicts in Europe and the Middle East.

“Negative reporting is not the main issue right now. The main thing is money, the global economy, people’s incomes and inflation. Generally, tourists come to visit Cambodia through travel agents or travel as part of a tour group. Even if they come alone, Cambodia is quite safe and peaceful,” he said.

“Kidnappings, online scams and gambling do happen, but they are being cracked down on. The important tourism drivers are economic. I believe that potential visitors will soon see their incomes rise, and global issues will be alleviated. Then the number of tourists will increase, including to Cambodia,” he added.

What can be done to restore reputation?

The Royal Academy of Cambodia’s Kin Phea believed that in order to restore the Kingdom’s image on the international stage and attract tourists, the Ministry of Information must ensure that potential visitors are able to access accurate information about Cambodia.

The Royal Academy of Cambodia’s Kin Phea. Supplied

He added that the Ministry of Tourism must increase its efforts to promote the Kingdom abroad, by sharing details about the many resorts and other attractions that are available, as well as the peaceful atmosphere that can be found here.

He said that in addition to promotional work, the government must take action to fight online gambling and cybercrimes. This should be the focus of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications and the interior ministry, both of which have capable cyber-crime departments.

“The two ministries must work together to resolve all of these issues,” he added.

Phea noted that the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training can also contribute to preventing trafficking by monitoring foreigners working in Cambodia, and making sure they are not working illegally or under coercion. He suggested that the labour ministry work with the interior ministry and foreign ministry to deal with the problem.

Regarding international promotion work, Phea would like to see the government investing more heavily in raising the image of Cambodia overseas, perhaps through social media influencers or respected media organisations.

Locally, he encouraged immigration officials to greet new arrivals politely, as they are at the forefront of people’s first impressions of the Kingdom. He also called for the general public to wear bright smiles, which reflect a peaceful Kingdom.

Chhort Bunthang, a research officer in the field of cultural relations, education and tourism at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, believes that international reporting on kidnappings and scam compounds – as well as controversial entertainment media like the Chinese feature film “No More Bets” – has definitely had a detrimental effect on the tourism sector’s recovery, adding to the impact of current global conflicts.

Chhort Bunthang, a research officer in the field of cultural relations, education and tourism at the Royal Academy of Cambodia. Supplied

He urged further commitment to promoting Cambodia’s potential as a tourism destination on the international stage, noting that in his opinion, current promotions lacked a sharp enough focus or were not being done in an attractive way.

“If our embassies abroad and the tourism ministry are advertising the Kingdom but tourists are still not interested, we must intensify our efforts. I am not suggesting that the ministry and other relevant institutions are not promoting the country, but they must do more,” he said. 

In addition to improving the standard of advertising that is being done, Bunthang encouraged all stakeholders in the tourism sector, both public and private, as well as the general public, to play their part by providing the best possible service to all of the Kingdom’s guests. In this way, they will create fond memories, potentially extending their stay or planning a return trip, he suggested.