The local tourism sector has shown steady growth in the last few years due, in no small part, to the soaring number of Chinese choosing the Kingdom as a holiday destination.
Despite this growth, Siem Reap province – one of the country’s most famous tourist destinations and home to the Unesco-listed Angkor Archaeological Park – experienced a significant drop in foreign visitors last year.
Other recent events of importance in Cambodia’s tourism sector were the closures of The Great Duke (formerly Intercontinental Hotel) in Phnom Penh and the Apsara Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap.
The Post’s Sorn Sarath meets with Cambodia Hotel Association (CHA) president Clais Chenda to discuss these trends and events and give a clearer picture of the industry.
What do you think about the development of the tourism sector in Cambodia, and how would you describe the current situation?
The sector is experiencing only modest growth. The number of tourists is growing moderately, but new hotels are being built every day, so the piece of the pie is getting smaller. Supply in the industry currently outstrips demand.
What is the reason behind the decrease in tourist arrivals to Siem Reap province last year?
The main reason, I believe, is political. The current political situation in the country is not good, and this affects travellers’ decisions. A small problem here can reverberate across the world, influencing the decisions of potential visitors who may choose to travel elsewhere because of security concerns.
Secondly, we have economic reasons. Last year saw a global economic downturn, and this made potential visitors much more cautious about how they spend their money. With Siem Reap having a smaller offer of tourism services than other cities in the region, many chose to visit other countries instead.
In Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is the main attraction, and, after tourists visit it, they don’t feel they have a reason to return. This is unfortunate because Siem Reap does have plenty of other tourist spots, particularly natural sites.
What is your opinion regarding the influx of Chinese tourists and investors and their impact on the country?
I don’t think Chinese tourists that come to Cambodia particularly benefit the local economy. Most of them choose to stay at Chinese-owned hotels, eat at Chinese restaurants and use the services of other Chinese companies.
This means locals see only a small amount of money. Generally speaking, Chinese visitors seldom care to learn about the culture of the countries they visit.
Given what you just said, what’s your view about how Sihanoukville and other parts of the Cambodian coast are developing?
Like in Macau, tall buildings are mushrooming everywhere in Sihanoukville. Chinese investment particularly is pushing up real estate prices and many locals are selling their land to make a quick buck. Unfortunately, many of them find that, once the money runs out, they are left landless and without a home and forced to move somewhere else to live.
Another problem is that many local tourists are now reluctant to travel to Sihanoukville because it is hard to find accommodation suited to their taste. Because of this, many choose to travel instead to the islands, which are more expensive.
But don’t get me wrong. It is good that Chinese companies are investing here. We welcome investments of all sizes in the tourism industry as they fill a particular niche. But I believe the government should do more to ensure locals also benefit, mainly through projects like community-based tourism. What we need in the tourism sector is more balance so that everyone benefits equally.
What will 2020 bring to the tourism industry in Cambodia?
Our biggest worry is that, despite our best efforts to improve services in the industry and open up new markets, growth in the number of tourists will stagnate.
To ensure this doesn’t happen, I am encouraging our members to market themselves in Thailand and Vietnam, where we can attract a lot of tourists.
In March, I plan to attend an exhibition in Germany to promote Cambodia’s tourism sector. I encourage CHA members to join me if they can.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.