Cambodia welcomed nearly 1.266 million international visitors in the first nine months of this year – up 861.21 per cent year-on-year but down 73.58 per cent over the same period in 2019 – of which 59.08 per cent were from Thailand and Vietnam, according to the Ministry of Tourism.

Of the January-September arrivals, 946,125 or 74.75 per cent declared “holiday” as their purpose of visit, 270,910 or 21.40 per cent marked “business”, while 48,737 or 3.85 per cent indicated other motives.

Thailand accounted for 462,705 or 36.56 per cent (444,943 holiday; 16,814 business; 948 other) – up 617.83 per cent year-on-year and even 60.61 per cent over the corresponding 2019 period – while Vietnam represented 285,163 or 22.53 per cent (208,333 holiday; 76,461 business; 369 other), up 3,628.11 per cent on-year but down 55.25 per cent versus the analogous 2019 period.

The next largest source markets were mainland China with 62,425 or 4.93 per cent of the total, followed by Indonesia (49,903; 3.94 per cent), the US (49,802; 3.93 per cent), Laos (38,783; 3.06 per cent), South Korea (36,404; 2.88 per cent), Malaysia (34,438; 2.72 per cent), France (31,157; 2.46 per cent) and the UK (22,471; 1.78 per cent).

September alone accounted for 21.13 per cent of the nine-month total for international visitors, at 267,500, up 4.98 per cent over August (254,813), which was up 7.65 per cent from July (236,697).

Of note, if the number of international visitors for each remaining month this year is equal to or greater than the September figure, 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 ministry as recently as last month.

Angkor Tourist Guides Association president Khieu Thy told The Post on October 30 that the number of foreign tourists visiting Angkor Wat has increased significantly in recent months, noting that most were from bordering countries, especially Thailand, whereas the majority had been Chinese prior to Covid-19.

Thy claimed that, since a number of Covid-19 restrictions were rolled back “almost a year ago” to allow for the return of foreign arrivals, the uptick in visitors from Thailand and other nearby countries has been “overwhelming”.

Even without as many travellers from more distant destinations as before, the Cambodian tourism sector has remained sustainable, largely thanks to tourists from neighbouring countries, following a decline to near zero during the height of the pandemic, he said, noting that most visitors from the bordering countries – Thailand, Vietnam and Laos – arrive overland.

“Regardless, we expect that there will soon be many more holidaymakers from countries further away taking trips to Cambodia,” he said.

According to the ministry, most of the January-September international visitors arrived by land, at 788,580 or 62.30 per cent, followed by air (468,889; 37.04 per cent) and waterways (8,303; 0.66 per cent).

Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA) president Chhay Sivlin argued that more travel facilitation measures for residents of nearby countries need to be adopted.

She explained that, for the time being, each jurisdiction’s tourism sector will be mainly dependent on internal and regional travel, amid the current global uncertainty tied to geopolitical and economic shocks as well as lingering Covid-19 disruptions.

“Visitors from neighbouring countries are a good starting point for the post-Covid-19 tourism recovery. Although they don’t spend as much as guests from European and American countries, their presence is very important at this time,” she said.

One such travel facilitation measure considered by government officials is a pilot scheme that would allow Thai tourists with official residence in any of the seven provinces that border Cambodia to travel overland to Siem Reap province, especially Angkor Archaeological Park, with only a border pass and not a passport.

The idea was raised at a September 19 plenary meeting of the inter-ministerial commission tasked with facilitating travel into Cambodia at all ports of entry, which was held at the ministry and presided over by its chairman Thong Khon, who is also the tourism minister.

Siem Reap does not border Thailand, which would require participants of the scheme to enter Cambodia through one of the seven provinces along the frontier.

Following the meeting, Hor Sarun, tourism ministry secretary of state and deputy chairman of the commission, said that Khon was looking to make a formal request to the government for the scheme. No updates on the request were immediately available.

Sarun claimed that Cambodia would greatly benefit from these Thai holidaymakers’ trips, which he argued may otherwise not have occurred. “Some Thai people want to go see Angkor Wat, but they lack a passport. Now, those who live in a border province may apply for a border pass and be able to visit,” he said.

He explained that residents of Thailand’s Sa Kaeo or Surin provinces could make their way into Siem Reap via Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey or Oddar Meanchey provinces, respectively.

In clockwise order, the seven Thai provinces that border Cambodia are: Trat, Chanthaburi, Sa Kaeo, Buriram, Surin, Sisaket and Ubon Ratchatani. Conversely, the seven Cambodian provinces that border Thailand are: Koh Kong, Pursat, Battambang, Pailin, Banteay Meanchey, Oddar Meanchey and Preah Vihear.