As Cambodia hosted the annual Pacific Asia Travel Association’s Travel Mart this week, more than 250 tourism businesses from around the world arrived in the capital to see what the Kingdom’s booming industry has on offer.
From niche market providers including high-end business package operators from the Middle East to larger mass-market tourism operators servicing China, the diverse range of businesses in attendance suggests that the Kingdom’s tourism industry is showing no signs of waning.
But different markets have different demands, and as Cambodia endeavors to attract new travellers, sophistication and creativity is required, while the country would do well to avoid pitfalls like the so-called zero-cost concept, according to industry insiders.
Jude Alphonso, manager of Abu Dhabi-based Gray Mackenize and Partners, whose business specialises in package tours and business travel for clients in the Middle East, said that his company would soon link Siem Reap to Vietnam as part of a tourism package.
But the demands of his clientele, who generally prefer direct flights when going on a vacation and whose Islamic dietary needs mean Halal food choices are required, have meant the Kingdom is not yet a major tourist destination for travellers from the Middle East.
“It’s too early to say that Cambodia alone it is a market for the Middle East, because the requirements for the Middle East markets are quite different from any other markets; there are a lot of food restrictions, transportation, shopping – they are a few of the requirements for the Middle Eastern clients,” he said.
Neither is Cambodia yet on the map for travellers from India, which has one of the fastest-growing outbound tourism markets in the world, according to Deepak Rawat, vice president of holiday operations at the Indian online travel site makemytrip.com.
But that could all change very quickly with greater awareness and leveraging the popularity of neighbouring countries, Rawat said.
“Once Indians start travelling, they don’t easily adapt to things, but the word of mouth is very strong. Once somebody travels, his friends and families will do exactly the same itinerary, same destination; you will see the number of tourists multiply,” he said.
“With the culture, the sightseeing and the shopping available in this region, there is value for money. I think there is a clear opportunity for more people to visit Cambodia, or at least take an extension from Cambodia, because one of the large outbound markets from India is Thailand,” he added.
With the government stepping up its campaign to promote Cambodia as a beach destination, niche companies like Wicked Diving, which has a presence in Thailand and Indonesia, were also in Phnom Penh this week, scouting opportunities.
“Cambodia is not renowned as one of the best dive places, but it is a good place to learn,” said Jo Marlow, Environmental Project Manager at Wicked Diving.
With diving popular among people of all walks of life, enthusiasts like to “tick the box” on waters from all over the world, and Cambodia has the potential as a starting point to attract beginners, Marlow said.
In 2003, Cambodia received some 700,000 international tourists. A decade on and that figure has grown six times to 4.2 million tourists in 2013.
But as tourism booms, particularly with the outbound numbers rising from China, Oliver Moeschler, a senior vice president of global sales and marketing at Kouni, one of the world’s largest travel service providers, cautioned that Cambodia needs to be careful of the pitfalls of what is known in the industry as the “zero cost concept”, where tourism packages are sold cheaply by being subsidised by shops, which tourists are made to visit during their holiday.
“It brings the quality down, because people think it is a cheap destination,” he said.
‘It’s ultimately not sustainable to the suppliers, because if they don’t shop, who is going to pay the bill?” he added.
Though not overly prevalent, zero-cost packages were an issue in Cambodia’s tourism industry according to Ho Vandy, co-chair of the Private-Public Tourism Sector Working Group. Vandy said yesterday that the majority of the private sector is firmly against the concept and had been working with the government to clamp down on it.
“Tourists don’t gain the experience that they should [with zero-cost packages],” Vandy said.
“It creates a very bad image for the country,” he added.