The Ministry of Tourism has unveiled plans to co-organise three major events with other local agencies as well as a Chinese association, as part of broader efforts to bring in one million mainland visitors this year, representing a more than nine-fold increase from 2022.

A February 1 ministry statement noted that minister Thong Khon earlier that day had met with an “executive director” of the association – identifying him as “Du Tianqiao” – to discuss the events and other ways to achieve the million-visitor target for 2023, which marks the 65th anniversary of Cambodia-China diplomatic relations – established on July 19, 1958.

Although no official English name was provided for the association, the statement mentioned its main areas of concern as international trade, along with regional business and economic cooperation.

The first of the three – set to take place before the May 5-17 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games – will be a cultural and sport tourism event with a marathon, golf, and martial arts performances – including Kun Lbokator and possibly Shaolin kung fu.

The second is a Cambodia-China tourism business and investment forum, and the third a Sino-Cambodian music event with celebrities from either country expected to attend. No expected dates were specified for either.

Khon asked the association to prepare a clear and detailed plan for the ministry to review and provide feedback on, and, pending approval, set up a team to organise the events, the statement said.

Speaking to The Post on February 2, Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA) president Chhay Sivlin highlighted Chinese tourists’ “important role” for the Kingdom’s tourism sector before Covid-19, noting that the mainland accounted for more than one-third of all international visitors in 2019.

Effective epidemiological management in Cambodia and Beijing’s withdrawal of its strict zero-Covid policy will drive up the number of Chinese travellers to the Kingdom, she said.

She added that tourism events in general, and especially the SEA Games which Cambodia is due to host in just three months, will be key draws for tourists of all nationalities, “especially those from China”.

“Cambodia expects to receive an estimated four million foreign visitors in 2023, at least one million of them Chinese. Chinese tourists will help offset the still-limited numbers of visitors from other countries,” Sivlin said.

Local and international visitors celebrate the New Year in Preah Sihanouk province on January 1. Preah Sihanouk Administration

Angkor Tourist Guide Association president Khieu Thy confirmed that Chinese and other foreign holidaymakers in Siem Reap are on a gradual uptrend, in stark contrast with their near-complete absence in the 2020-2022 period.

Their arrival is a “beacon of hope” for the tourism industry, he said, noting that many workers in the field have had to take up other occupations during the past three years.

“I expect more former workers in the tourism sector to get back to the grind, as travel in Siem Reap revives slowly but surely,” he said.

On January 2, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that Cambodia would not follow in other countries’ footsteps in imposing any additional restrictions towards arrivals from mainland China, amid concerns that soaring Covid-19 cases there could drive the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants of the novel coronavirus.

On the contrary, the premier presented the development as an opportunity to bring in around “two million” mainland Chinese visitors this year, cashing in on pent-up travel demand. He stressed that greater numbers of Chinese tourists would spur near-term and longer-term growth in the Cambodian economy.

And 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.