The Chinese flag carrier, Air China Ltd, is set for an inaugural post-Covid flight to Phnom Penh on the morning of February 7, amid hopes for between one and 1.5 million mainland visitors to the Kingdom in 2023.

A reception will reportedly be held at 8:30am for the passengers and crew aboard flight CA745, with Minister of Tourism Thong Khon, State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) chief Mao Havannall and Phnom Penh municipal governor Khuong Sreng in attendance.

Flightradar24 shows that flight CA745, an Airbus A321-271N, is scheduled to depart from Beijing at 6:10am and arrive in Phnom Penh at 10:10am – all times local. Air China will join China Eastern, China Southern, Lanmei, Spring and a host of other Chinese airlines operating flights in and out of Cambodia.

This comes a day after a tourism pilot programme kicked off, in which Beijing allows travel agencies to provide international group tours as well as flight and hotel packages to Chinese citizens, covering Cambodia and 19 other countries, as reported by state-owned China Daily, citing a January 20 notice from China’s tourism ministry.

The other 19 nations chosen for the programme, which follows a three-year ban, were Argentina, Cuba, Fiji, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, Kenya, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, New Zealand, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.

This also comes just about a month after Beijing’s January 8 reopening to inbound and outbound tourism, amid concerns that spiralling coronavirus infections in China following the dismantling of its “dynamic zero-Covid” regime could be driving the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants of the pathogen.

Tourism ministry spokesman Top Sopheak revealed to The Post on February 6 that a white paper entitled “China-ready” and a slew of new strategies are in preparation to capture a larger slice of the lucrative Chinese outbound tourism market.

Cambodia expects a sustained uptrend in foreign tourists for the foreseeable future, he said, underlining that his ministry has, before and during Covid-19, put “a lot of work” into ensuring that the Kingdom is well-equipped to cater to Chinese holidaymakers.

From the year of the ‘Visit Cambodia 2023’ campaign, the country will be “ready to receive Chinese tourists”, he contended, noting that the Kingdom is set this year to host major events such as the annual Angkor Sangkran and River Festival, as well as the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and ASEAN Para Games, along with other regional sports meets.

The number of mainland Chinese visitors to Cambodia is expected to top the one-million mark this year – representing a more than nine-fold increase from 2022 – which could take the total of foreign arrivals past four million.

Pacific Asia Travel Association Cambodia Chapter chairman Thourn Sinan believes that the industry is adequately prepared to receive foreign travellers without significant issues, despite the proportion of tourism-linked businesses and individuals forced into other trades due to three years of Covid misery.

“Every country” wants a slice of the massive Chinese tourism pie, he claimed, adding that mainlanders in general like to visit the Siem Reap temples, in addition to Phnom Penh and the coastal Preah Sihanouk province.

“We are ready to welcome foreign tourists of all nationalities, especially the Chinese, who we expected in large numbers from now on,” he said, stating that “over 80 per cent” of mainland visitors do not enter Cambodia through a third country.

Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA) president Chhay Sivlin said that the number of Chinese tourists to Cambodia has been on a gradual increase as of late, spelling “great hope” for the local tourism sector and economic growth.

“The cultural tourism hub of Siem Reap and the coastal areas will remain very attractive for Chinese tourists. However, in tours we always include other areas and tourism products,” she added.

After a long Covid-19 hiatus, regular direct commercial flights between mainland China and Sihanoukville resumed on January 27, after Chinese-owned Ruili Airlines’ flight DR5031 from Kunming touched down in the coastal town at 9:45am, with a total of 104 passengers and six crew members aboard.

Cambodia welcomed 2.277 million international visitors in 2022, representing a 65.56 per cent drop from the record-breaking 6.611 million of 2019, but an increase by a factor of 11.59 over 2021, according to tourism ministry statistics, which by many accounts was the worst year for the local tourism sector in recent memory due to the Covid downturn.

Although mainland China had accounted for a 35.73 per cent share of all international arrivals to the Kingdom in 2019, at 2.362 million, that proportion dropped to just 4.69 per cent last year, or 106,875, largely seen as a result of Beijing’s “dynamic zero-Covid” policy.

Of the total international visitors, the majority had their purpose of visit marked as “holiday”, at 1.767 million or 77.60 per cent, followed by “business” (431,000; 18.93%) and “others” (79,049; 3.47%). Most arrived by land at 1.467 million or 64.44 per cent, which was down 28.42 per cent from 2019, followed by air (791,603; 34.77%; down 82.03%) and waterways (17,866; 0.78%; down 88.61%).

Mainland China was the third largest source market after Thailand with 853,376 (819,081 holiday; 32,659 business; 1,636 others) and Vietnam with 463,995 (345,459 holiday; 117,948 business; 588 others), which were respectively up 82.93 per cent and down 48.94 per cent from their corresponding 2019 figures.

Interestingly, Indonesians too visited the Kingdom in greater numbers, at 75,653 (20,328 holiday; 55,107 business; 218 others) last year versus 66,804 (38,530 holiday; 26,410 business; 1,864 others) in 2019.