Tourism in Cambodia is on the rise, and travellers are venturing beyond the iconic temples to seek the country’s hidden treasures. With new ASEAN standards, the Kingdom stands poised for the future, but diverse markets are creating unique challenges for the emerging sector.
The first half of 2015 has been significant for the Cambodian tourism industry. In February, the country hosted the first UNWTO and UNESCO World Conference on Tourism and Culture. In March, US First Lady Michelle Obama visited Siem Reap, as the city was voted the number one destination in Asia and the second in the world after Morocco’s Marrakesh, in TripAdvisor’s 2015 Travellers’ Choice Awards.
These milestones are all part of a general upswing for the country, which has experienced dramatic tourism growth over the past five years. Since 2009, the number of tourists has grown by more than 200 percent, with 4.5 million arrivals in 2014. Tourism contributed $3 billion to the country’s economy last year, and an estimated 600,000 people are now employed in the industry.
The centrepiece demand-generator has been, and remains, Angkor Wat – “the icon of Cambodia,” according to Try Chhiv, the government’s deputy general director of tourism. The majority of tourists flock to Siem Reap for short trips between Thailand and Vietnam.
Jeff Strachan, owner of Siem Reap-based bed and breakfast Maison 557, echoes the view of many when the says, “the last few years have really been on steroids.”
A key to the rise in tourism is the country’s relative peace. “The fundamental basis for growth is the stability,” says Chhiv. “This is the main driving force for tourism development.”
Another selling point is the relatively low cost of tourism compared to other countries in the region. Magnus Olovson, general manager of Heritage Suites Hotel in Siem Reap believes that Siem Reap could well be “the cheapest five-star destination in Southeast Asia.”
Improved infrastructure and increased direct flight access across Asia are further contributing factors. A growing number of independent travellers are now taking advantage of off-the-beaten track options, such as trekking in the country’s northeast, exploring waterways via cruises and rock climbing in the south.
“You’ve got adventure, relaxation; you can party hardy or have a meditative retreat; you can come and do business workshops,” says Carrol Sahaidak-Beaver, executive director for the Cambodia Hotel Association. “The only thing you can’t do here? Snow skiing.”
To keep up with a rapidly expanding market, the Cambodian government has been working to establish ASEAN-recognised standards, such as clean city and community-based tourism certifications. “We can ensure the minimum standards of quality by implementing ASEAN standards,” says Chhiv. The standards also address industry gaps, such as the shortage of skilled workers, with many hoteliers complaining about the lack of trained staff.
In response, the country is leading the regional charge on training requirements for tourism professionals, including front office, food and beverage, tour operators and travel agents. Employees will be trained and certified, and then entered into a database available to potential employers across the 10 ASEAN member countries. “The idea is to cooperate with the spirit of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) that is a free flow of skilled labour from 2015,” says Chhiv.
The Kingdom was the first to pilot an assessment of ASEAN tourism professionals and produce tools for training schools and hotels. Though only 16 housekeepers have been certified to date, ASEAN is targeting 6,000 individuals by the end of the year, according to Chhiv.
This is also part of a push to professionalise the tourism industry. Many young people move on from jobs at hotels because they do not see them as part of a legitimised career path, says Chhiv. “The challenge is to keep these people in the industry. [They need] qualifications recognised by the nation and by ASEAN.”
The government is also cooperating with groups such as the Cambodia Hotel Association to address additional challenges, such as electricity, rubbish collection and hotel registration. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s two-star or five-star,” Sahaidak-Beaver says of the association’s 81 hotels. “The concerns are all the same.”
One prominent and complex concern is the changing face of tourism in Cambodia, as the traditional tourist markets of Europe and North America are being replaced by Asian ones. Vietnamese guests top the list, followed by Chinese, Korean, Thai and Japanese, according to Ministry of Tourism statistics. Last year, Siem Reap airport received 900,000 South Korean and 850,000 Chinese arrivals, often through newly established direct routes, according to Strachan.
This is no accident, as the government is focusing on promoting ‘ASEAN for ASEAN’ and prioritising connectivity between China and Cambodia, says Chhiv. The Ministry of Tourism recently created a memorandum of understanding with the largest government-owned tour service in China to attract more tourists. “We have a strong relationship with China, so we can push this traditional relationship forward to economic cooperation, including tourism,” he adds.
Domestic tourism too is increasing, with thousands of Cambodians flocking to the temples and southern beaches, due to a burgeoning middle and lower-middle class that can afford yearly trips. “You have a lot of people from Phnom Penh, from the provinces,” says Soann Kann, managing director of Sokkhak Group, which encompasses a spa, two restaurants and a hotel. “That has been growing.”
However, increased tourist numbers do not necessarily equate to higher net spend. Visitors from Asia have a reputation for spending less than Western ones, often because they travel as part of tour groups. They also tend to have different interests and requirements, which can sit uncomfortably with a hotel’s traditional tourist base. “If you’re trying to pull in Chinese tourists, your hotel looks very different to French guests,” adds Strachan. “You can’t just be all things to all men. It causes a lot of conflict within the tourism space.”
Consequently, several within the industry are urging the government to focus more on tourist quality than quantity. “It’s a good idea to focus on fewer but more spending visitors,” says Olovson. “More people doesn’t necessarily equal more money into the community, better experiences,” adds Strachan.
The Ministry of Tourism counters that it has short-, medium- and long-term plans in place, including targeting 5 million visitors in 2015 and 8 million by 2020, that align with ASEAN’s tourism plan. “Numbers are very important, but the quality of tourists is also important, tourists who are likely to pay more,” says Chhiv.
What is without doubt, however, is the potential the country’s tourism industry has to offer.
“There’s so many other things to discover,” says Olovson, who is often disappointed to see visitors check Angkor Wat off their bucket list before moving on to other countries. “If Cambodia could become a destination in and of itself, the country would really gain.”
This is something that both the government and Cambodia Hotel Association acknowledge. They are working to promote lesser-known attractions, such as river dolphins, giant ibises and other rare birds, as well as community-based ecotourism. And they argue that, much as in Myanmar, part of the country’s charm is the lack of tourist development away from the crowds flocking to Angkor. “Cambodia is an emerging destination, so we still have authenticity,” says Chhiv. “This can attract people.”
If the first half of 2015 was noticeable in terms of international recognition for Cambodia’s tourism industry, the advent of the AEC, together with its opening of borders, collective ASEAN marketing and increased industry regulation, should see a substantial growth in both tourism numbers and standards. Whether the country is quite ready for it or not, tourism in the Kingdom of Wonder seems set to boom.
BY JOANNA MAYHEW.