Cambodia’s Tourism Rebound Hampered by Global Crises

As Cambodia hits almost one year since re-opening borders to international tourists, the country’s tourism industry remains predominantly in survival mode as it battles against global strife
Phnom Penh skyscrapers. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Phnom Penh skyscrapers. Kiripost/Siv Channa

As the one-year anniversary since Cambodia reopened borders to tourists looms, industry players still await the rapid return of visitors as global issues push up air fares and cripple the world’s expendable income, hampering travel rebound.

“It has been moving slowly and increased from month-to-month,” said Sinan Thourn, chairman of PATA Cambodia and founder of tour operator BTB Cambodia.

“If the world crises don’t continue to grow, I think the future outlook would be positive. However, from my own perspective, there is only a very small percentage of a chance that this great expectation will take place as the global crises seem to be unexpectedly happening from day-to-day.”

The latest report from the Ministry of Tourism reveals Cambodia welcomed more than 1.2 million international visitors in the first nine months of 2022.

While this marks an 861 percent year-on-year (YOY) increase, the figure teeters far from 2019’s pre-pandemic arrivals of 6.6 million, who generated $4.92 billion in revenue.

“We’ve started to see some tourists return,” said Sonn Sopheak. In June 2020, the tour guide was forced to quit his job of 10 years, mostly taking Western tourists around Angkor Wat, and return to his homeland in Pursat to work on the family farm.

When Cambodia became one of the first Southeast Asian countries to start rewelcoming vaccinated visitors in November 2021, Sopheak said he was hit by a mix of emotions.

“It was a relief. It was the announcement we had all been waiting for, but I was still too scared to return to Siem Reap to be a tour guide again. In 2020, I lost my whole livelihood almost overnight,” he said.

In July, the freelance tour guide decided to return to Temple Town after receiving some bookings from tour operators. However, business remains slow. “I’m slowly starting to get more work,” the father-of-two said. “But it’s nothing like before, and I don’t know when it will return. It’s still hard to make a living.”

According to figures released by Angkor Enterprise, which oversees ticket sales at Angkor Archaeological Park, a total of 134,152 foreign tourists visited Angkor in the first nine months of 2022. This represents a 2,075 percent YOY hike.

Vannary San, owner of Eco House Boutique Hotel in Phnom Penh, said while rooms are starting to fill up once again, clawing back the cash lost since Covid-19 tightly closed borders in April 2020 will take time.

She has also hit hurdles re-recruiting staff to cater to the gradual uptick in tourists – an issue echoed throughout Cambodia’s tourism landscape, Vannary said.

“It has been a headache,” she said. “So many staff left tourism when Covid came along and they do not want to come back. They are fearful or have found other work. This has been difficult, and we have had to do a lot of training with staff we have recruited.”

According to the Ministry of Tourism report, between January and September, Thailand topped the table of international arrivals into Cambodia, followed by Vietnam, China, the US, and Indonesia.

Sinan said at B2B Cambodia, bookings have been led by ASEAN countries. He added there has been a noted lack in absence of reservations from European countries, China, Japan and Korea. And with the global energy and food crises looking unlikely to ease any time soon, he is pinning hopes on China reopening.

Pre-covid, China dominated Cambodia’s international arrivals. In 2019, 2.4 million Chinese visited the country, making up 36 percent of the total.

“The future is hard to predict at the moment,” Sinan said. “The world keeps changing every minute, but if China relaxes restrictions, I believe the world of tourism will completely change. The hope is now with them.”

Secretary of State of the Ministry of Tourism, Top Sopheak, has previously been reported as predicting international arrivals to Cambodia will not hit pre-pandemic levels by 2026 or 2027. He forecast Cambodia will receive 7.5 million arrivals by 2028.

Ministry of Tourism figures show in 2019, the sector accounted for more than 12 percent of the country’s economy and directly employed 630,000 people, with scores of others reliant on tourism.