Cambodia’s new Tourism frontier

A year ago, getting to Sihanoukville required perseverance and a certain degree of bravery. There had been no flights to Cambodia’s premier beach resort for years — at least no scheduled services — and cruise ships docking here were few and far between.

Buses from Cambodia’s star attraction, Angkor Wat, take 10 hours and the first section of the road from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville sees so many accidents that Cambodians usually insist on praying en route at a cliffside temple.

“A seaside getaway is not what most travellers think of when they book a holiday to Cambodia,” said Sibylle Rotzler, sales manager of Bangkok-based Backyard Travel, which recently launched a tour taking in the south-coast resorts of Sihanoukville, Kep, a sleepy French-colonial town, and Koh Kong, a new destination on the eco-tourism trail.

Scheduled flights to Sihanoukville from Siem Reap finally restarted at the end of last year, then earlier this month the first ship to cruise the Gulf of Thailand in a decade dropped anchor here and with it about 1,000 Chinese tourists.

Meanwhile, the luxury hotel chain Marriott is due to open a resort in Sihanoukville next year featuring an 18-hole golf course and a marina. And, after completing a new bridge from the mainland to an island a kilometre off the coast last July, the developer Koh Puos Investment Group has started building a similarly luxurious resort complete with a casino.

Following years spent promoting Sihanoukville and the rest of the coastline as the next travel frontier in Cambodia, efforts by the Ministry of Tourism seem to be paying off finally.

Last year, the number of foreign visitors to Cambodia’s beaches grew eight percent to about 180,000 people, according to official figures. This growth is expected to accelerate after the Cambodian coastline was last year admitted to the Most Beautiful Bays in the World Club, a prestigious collective that also includes Halong Bay in Vietnam and Mont Saint Michel in France.

But efforts to place Sihanoukville on the map also point to wider problems that have plagued the tourism industry in Cambodia in recent years as it has tried to diversify beyond the Angkor temples and the French colonial capital Phnom Penh.

In mid-2007, Sihanoukville was the scene of an airplane crash in which all 22 people on board died, less than six months after its airport reopened following decades of disuse during and after the Khmer Rouge era.

The following year, the European Union blacklisted the now-defunct Siem Reap Airways, which in turn blamed the ban on Cambodia’s lack of compliance with international aviation safety standards.

With Siem Reap Airways effectively dead and a black mark against its civil aviation record, in late 2008 Cambodia became one of the few countries in the world without its own domestic airline stalling efforts to diversify its tourism industry.

When the refurbishment of Sihanoukville Airport was finally completed at the end of 2009, it took a further two years for scheduled flights to restart, a delay many in Cambodia’s tourism industry blamed on the schizophrenic nature of a new airline that started earlier the same year.

Although Cambodia Angkor Air (CAA) was supposed to be the national flag carrier, critics say 49% ownership by Vietnam Airlines means it has little interest in developing new domestic destinations and every desire to instead control Cambodia’s civil aviation and channel tourists in and out of Vietnam.

Kloung Sivly, a marketing executive at CAA, said the decision to relaunch scheduled flights between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville — which start at US$228 return this low season — was “in harmony” with the government’s plan to promote links to the seaside resort.

Traffic to Sihanoukville remains minuscule. CAA, the only carrier to the beach resort, flew 5,741 passengers to Sihanoukville in the first half of this year, said Kloung Sivly, meaning the newly reopened airport is operating well below its capacity of 700,000 passengers per year.

CAA has no immediate intent to fly between the capital Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, he said. “However, we do have a plan to operate this route in the long term.”

Meanwhile, Vietnam Airlines planning executive Do Thi Phuong Trinh said connections between Sihanoukville and Ho Chi Minh City would be decided “based on market demand at the appropriate time”.

As yet, there are still no direct overseas connections to Sihanoukville, while CAA’s only international destination remains Ho Chi Minh City — Vietnam Airlines’ main hub — more than three years after Cambodia’s new national carrier first began flying.

Critics have argued that Cambodia’s aviation problems go beyond its safety record and the new national carrier.

Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes publicly complained this month that airport charges in the country were overly expensive compared to the rest of the region, which was deterring airlines, although he did single out Sihanoukville as a possible new destination.

Societe Concessionaire des Aeroports (SCA), which operates all three of Cambodia’s air terminals, has offered incentives at Sihanoukville including a waiver on ground-handling fees in a bid to get airlines to fly there.

Khek Norinda, SCA’s communications and marketing manager, points out that the struggle to re-establish scheduled flights to Sihanoukville has been as much to do with prevailing economic conditions as anything else.

“We need more time to build the profile of Sihanoukville as a regional resort destination,” he says.

Written by Steve Finch
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