The tourism minister and Australian ambassador on March 29 affirmed their commitment to working towards the launch of direct commercial flights between Cambodia and the Land Down Under, raising expectations for a substantial increase in bilateral trade and travel flows.

At a meeting with ambassador Justin Kevin Whyatt at the Ministry of Tourism, minister Thong Khon highlighted the convenience that direct commercial flights between the two countries would bring for Cambodian students in Australia, tourists, businesspeople and investors, according to a ministry statement.

He asked Whyatt to promote such flights, and requested Australia to lend a hand in tourism human resource development as well as in the promotion of the Angkor Sangkran event in Siem Reap province along with the upcoming 32nd Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and 12th ASEAN Para Games – which are to be hosted by Cambodia between May and June.

Additionally, Khon asked Canberra to consider supporting Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) conservation efforts because “no dolphins means no tourists” for many areas along the Mekong River.

The minister mentioned a 2007-2011 project by the World Tourism Organization with this objective, in which the UN agency moved fishermen into tourism jobs and helped establish a regional tourism community.

Whyatt affirmed his commitment to expanding cooperation with Cambodia in all areas, particularly in the field of tourism, and pledged to work hard in his capacity as ambassador, especially towards direct flights between the two countries, the statement said.

According to Pacific Asia Travel Association Cambodia Chapter chairman Thourn Sinan, such flights would be a boon for the tourism sectors and economies of both countries, given Australia’s developed status and general affluence of its population, as well as the Kingdom’s broad variety of travel spots, especially ancient temples and coastal areas beloved by Aussie travellers.

Although a relaxation in Canberra’s visa requirements could attract many more Cambodian holidaymakers, the numbers of tourists travelling between the two countries have been increasing significantly, he told The Post on March 30.

“I believe that there’d be a lot of support behind the establishment of direct flights between the two countries,” he said, contending that these would likely be more successful than pre-Covid-19 routes to and from Paris, France.

Son Sambath, who is studying toward a Master’s degree in Australia, welcomed the thought of such flights, commenting that flying between the two countries is expensive and requires stopovers that can extend travel times to 12 hours, or longer if passing through China.

“There’d be no need to spend time waiting to catch a connecting flight,” he said, suggesting that round-trip fares between Phnom Penh and Melbourne now are roughly 25 per cent higher than they had been prior to Covid.

Tourism ministry figures indicate that, in 2022, a total of 37,673 Australians travelled to Cambodia, up from 1,276 in 2021 but down from 146,806 in 2016 – respectively the lowest and highest annual figures given for the 2006-2022 period, with the next highest numbers given at 143,852 in 2017, and 134,748 in 2015.

Of the 2022 total, the majority of whom had their purpose of visit marked as “holiday”, at 22,139 or 58.77 per cent, followed by “business” (4,250; 11.28%) and “others” (11,284; 29.95%).

In 2022, Australia emerged as Cambodia’s 19th largest trading partner, with bilateral merchandise trade reaching $523.612 million, up by 60.9 per cent over a year earlier, as shown by provisional Customs (GDCE) data.

Cambodia’s exports to Australia came to $379.035 million, increasing by 84.6 per cent over 2021, while imports stood at $144.577 million, up by 20.3 per cent.

Cambodia’s trade surplus with the continental nation ballooned by 175.4 per cent, from $85.131 million in 2021 to $234.458 million in 2022.