TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP
Tuk-tuks take tourists on a tour of the Angkor temples complex in Siem Reap province. More than half of all visitors to Cambodia visit Angkor during their stay.
Helicopters buzz over Sihanoukville and the nearby islands off the southern coast, carrying development prospectors hungry for a slice of the pie. Meanwhile, construction by private developers is underway to convert the abandoned French colonial Bokor hill station into a $1 billion luxury resort.
Less than a decade and a half ago, local headlines about tourists may have mentioned the three Western backpackers kidnapped and eventually executed by the Khmer Rouge.
“Ten years ago on the forefront of visitors’ minds was Khmer Rouge, civil war, landmines. Now it’s Angkor Wat and beaches,” says Gordon Sharpless, who runs the Tales of Asia travel website and owns a guesthouse in Siem Reap.
“Back then, even in Phnom Penh you always had to ask a guesthouse if their electricity and water were working,” he says.
Travel writers and guesthouse owners acknowledge that some thrill-seekers still visit Cambodia in search of a wild-west atmosphere, but they say that breed is fading as mainstream tourists flood in.
A record more than two million tourists arrived in Cambodia in 2007, up 20 percent from 2006. Meanwhile industry earnings grew more than a third to $1.4 billion and are expected to hit $2.2 billion by 2010.
The Ministry of Tourism (MoT) estimates annual international visitor arrivals will reach 2.4 million in 2008. After that, the projections are for 2.9 million in 2009 and 3.35 million in 2010.
In the past six years the volume of Cambodians traveling domestically has more than tripled.
The total number of international visitors was only one million in 2004 – a figure the MoT expects to be nearly doubled by tourism to Siem Reap alone by 2010.
Hotel and guesthouse numbers in Cambodia more than tripled in the past ten years, contributing to the sector’s employment numbers – 280,000 last year and expected to rise almost 100,000 more by the decade’s end.
While Cambodia may be losing its identity as an extreme destination, there’s little consensus on what it has, should or will become.
“The biggest challenge for Cambodia is that there are many people wanting different things so it’s difficult for the government to juggle different kinds of demand,” says Lonely Planet Guidebook Cambodia author Nick Ray, who has written on Cambodia since 1994 and traveled on motorbike across the country.
He says the development of Bokor is a good example. “They’ll lose adventure backpackers and pick up Asian tourists. But for every adventure backpacker they lose, they’ll probably pick up ten new Korean or Japanese tourists.”
Governments traditionally scorn backpackers, viewing them as misbehaving non-spenders, and instead try to court upmarket tourists. But according to Minister of Tourism Thong Khon, Cambodia welcomes all visitors.
And the backpacker scene has changed a lot since the ‘90s. There’s a new breed of independent travelers, dubbed “flashpackers,” that wants both adventure and comfort. Whether on a gap year or career break, they’re willing to spend $20 or $30 a night instead of just a few dollars.
There’s no clear picture of the Kingdom’s tourism climate in the future. Today, the mantra of eco-tourism sits uncomfortably beside increasing numbers of big-ticket developments.
Need for expertise
The reference points for most Cambodian government officials are the modern cities in the region they travel to for conferences, like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
Many officials have little experience with eco-tourism destinations, although Minister Khon says he’s committed to doing eco-tourism well.
There is consensus, however, that more organization and regulation is in order.
Anne-Maria Makela, an advisor to the Ministry of Tourism, fingers jurisdictional overlap and murky land management as the two biggest obstacles to the country’s tourism. Unless they are better coordinated, she says, the different government departments with their hands in tourism will not work to their potential.
She says developers, especially small ones with little clout, will be hesitant to invest unless their land and development contracts are secure.
“There’s no point in investing in a hotel if, say, a mining company is then allowed to operate next door,” she says.
Makela also says not enough money is being absorbed locally. Japanese and Koreans, while representing the two largest markets, are the most prone to patronizing restaurants, hotels and gift shops owned by people of their own nationality, according to Makela, who says this means less money finds its way into Cambodian hands.
Trent Eddy, co-founder of Phnom Penh-based Emerging Markets Consulting, thinks revenue leakage could be addressed by paying more attention to domestic tourists since they are the most likely to extend revenues to Cambodians in small, out-of-the-way communities where foreigner travelers and tourism operators tend not to venture.
The problem, though, goes beyond tourist spending within Cambodia. According to the MoT, 90 percent of tourists visit Cambodia as an extension of their trips to neighbouring countries.
As a result, says Meoung Sonn, president of the National Association of Tourism Enterprises, tourists arrange their travel packages with agencies in their principal destination, usually Vietnam or Thailand, and Cambodia misses out on key revenues.
While the unwieldy growth of tourism in Cambodia may not heed to a master plan, it could be tamed by new legislation.
Currently in the hands of the Council of Ministers, en route to the National Assembly, the General Tourism Law would require all tourism operators abide by a code of conduct and obtain government-approved licenses, as well as lay the groundwork for more parameters in the industry. The draft also would limit foreign investors to being minority shareholders in tourism enterprises.
Meoung Sonn says it has long been too easy to open a travel agency in Cambodia and the government needs to hold operators accountable.
For Ho Vandy, president of the Cambodian Association of Travel agents, many operators are out of touch with tourists.
“Often, they have some money in the family so they start a business, but they know little about tourism,” he says.
Part of the effort to polish the industry, Vandy adds, will be a major joint government-private sector promotional initiative involving national and international TV and newspaper advertisement and a road show around the globe.