The official start of operations at the Chinese-developed Dara Sakor International Airport in southwestern Koh Kong province has been delayed from end-2022 to mid-2023, due to prolonged Covid-19-related disruptions, regional and global economic uncertainty and heightened geopolitical competition, according to a senior aviation official.

Situated on a 4.5ha plot of land in Botum Sakor district near the Gulf of Thailand, the new airport is being developed by Chinese firm Tianjin Union Development Group to serve the Dara Sakor Resort, an area touted as a “luxury eco-tourism destination”, at an expected cost of $350 million, with $200 million poured into Phase I alone.

The project is reportedly a Code 4E International Airport, meaning that it will be able to accommodate wide-body passenger airliners such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A340.

For reference, in the “4E” code designation, the number “4” means that the airport’s runway is longer than 1,800m and the letter “E” signifies that the runway is designed for aircraft with a wingspan of up to but not including 65m, and landing gear where the outside edges of the outermost wheels are less than 14m apart.

During the delay, staff will receive training and undergo tests on their abilities to operate and use navigational, communication and safety instruments to international standards, and acquire accreditation to prove their expertise.

The airport launched pilot flights in April to ensure full equipment functionality and staff capability prior to the official start of operations.

State Secretariat for Civil Aviation (SSCA) spokesman Sin Chansereyvutha told The Post on November 22 that Covid-induced shocks and a number of regional and global issues have stymied construction work at the airport, prompting the developer to ask the aviation regulator to delay the launch to mid-2023.

“We’re all aware that the health crisis has dragged on, leading to difficulties for the company [the developer].

“They submitted a letter to us on their plans to launch in the middle of next year, noting that they need some more time to do some internal works and marketing,” he said, affirming that the company did not disclose any further information.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Tourism on October 31 underscored two major initiatives to focus on in tandem with “Visit Cambodia Year 2023” to accelerate international tourism growth, and called on relevant parties to be actively involved and pursue options to raise the allure of the Kingdom.

These are: to champion local travel destinations at 10 international events set to be held in India, China, Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, Europe, or elsewhere; and drive forward the so-called “Cambodia as Sports Tourism Destination” campaign as the host of the 2023 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and ASEAN Para Games, the ministry said in a notice.

It noted that the initiatives are in line with the 2020-2025 Roadmap for Recovery of Cambodia Tourism During and Post Covid-19, specifically the 2022-2023 Phase II (Recovery).

In an interview with The Post early this month, Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA) president Chhay Sivlin remarked that the tourism sector is gradually recovering, led by the domestic segment, after plunging to “near zero” levels for more than two years due to the Covid-19 crisis.

She noted that, prior to the pandemic, international tourism had been a key generator of national income as well as direct and indirect jobs.

Sivlin believes that the two latest initiatives to be spotlighted by the ministry are “really necessary to help foreigners know more about Cambodia and potentially convince them to visit.

“Cambodia is one of the best tourist destinations in the world,” she proclaimed, adding that a slew of entertainment venues are under renovation to draw in larger crowds.

The Kingdom welcomed nearly 1.266 million international visitors in the first nine months of this year – up 861.29 per cent year-on-year but down 73.71 per cent over the same period in 2019 – of which 946,125, or 74.75 per cent, declared “holiday” as their purpose of visit, 270,910 (21.40 per cent) marked “business”, while 48,737 (3.85 per cent) indicated other motives.

Of note, if the number of international visitors for each remaining month this year is equal to or greater than the September figure of 267,500, the full-year total would top 2.068 million, or 3.41 per cent more than the two-million upper bound of the estimated range offered by the tourism ministry as recently as November 2.