The official start of operations at the Chinese-developed Dara Sakor International Airport in southwestern Koh Kong province is still set for mid-2023, with the main work on the project now “100 per cent” completed, provincial governor Mithona Phouthorng affirmed this week.

Formal operations have been delayed from end-2022 due to prolonged Covid-19-related disruptions, as well as regional and global economic uncertainty and heightened geopolitical competition, according to State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) spokesman Sin Chansereyvutha.

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

At a February 21 press conference on the provincial administration’s achievements over the past five years, the Koh Kong governor assured that there would be no further delays to the planned mid-2023 start of operations, and that the primary work on the airport’s first phase had reached “100 per cent” completion.

The SSCA’s Chansereyvutha told The Post on February 23 that the air transport sector is gradually improving, as Dara Sakor prepares to open and bring in international passengers, and potentially link Cambodia with new destinations in the region and further afield.

But even with just a few months remaining, Chansereyvutha affirmed that he had yet to receive a single official letter from any airline requesting authorisation to launch a route to or from the Koh Kong airport.

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 would 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.

Ministry of Tourism statistics show that 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, albeit an increase by a factor of 11.59 over 2021.

Of the total international visitors, the majority had their purpose of visit marked as “holiday”, at 1.767 million, followed by “business” (431,000) and “others” (79,049) – compared to 5.035 million holiday, 1.371 million business and 204,326 other in 2019.

Mainland China had been the largest source market for international visitors to Cambodia each year from 2017-2020, but was bumped off by Thailand in 2021, which also ranked first last year.

Although the Chinese mainland accounted for a 35.73 per cent share of all foreign travellers to the Kingdom in 2019, at 2.362 million (1.299 million holiday; 1.046 million business; 16,254 other), that proportion dropped to just 4.69 per cent last year, or 106,875 (28,837 holiday; 77,595 business; 443 other).

But a tourism pilot programme launched by Beijing on February 6 could dethrone Thailand from the top spot, with local pundits expecting mainland Chinese arrivals in the seven digits this year.

As part of the programme, travel agencies are allowed to provide international group tours as well as flight and hotel packages to Chinese citizens that are restricted to Cambodia and 19 other countries, according to China’s tourism ministry.

The other 19 nations chosen for the programme 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.