On a recent weekend in March, tourists crowded into Siem Reap’s Pub Street to drink, dine, and shop. After two years of COVID-related closures and slowdowns that have devastated Cambodia’s tourism industry, the scene was a welcome one. But away from the busiest streets, tuk tuk drivers, vendors, and tour operators said they still were struggling.
Duong Sela, a tuk tuk driver who has worked in Siem Reap for five years, said that he currently earns an average of $8-10 a day compared with $20 a day before the pandemic.
“There were some Western and Korean visitors but almost no Chinese here,” he said. While China ended its zero-Covid policies in December, Chinese tourists have yet to return to the high rates of international travel seen pre-pandemic and flights have yet to fully resume. For Cambodia, which saw nearly 2.4 million Chinese tourists in 2019 — composing more than a third of the 6.6 million tourist arrivals — the loss has been particularly acute.
“I observed that some businesses also closed after three or six months of operation, especially the restaurant,” said Sela. “People here rely on the revenue from tourism. Without tourists they have nothing, affecting most small vendors and tour guides.”
In January 2023, according to Tourism Ministry data, Cambodia received 402,943 international visitors, compared to 20,567 in January 2021 and 44,910 in January 2022.
Visitors from Thailand led international arrivals in January, accounting for 139,642 followed by Vietnam with 64,527 and China with 24,978. South Korea and Laos were in fourth and fifth place, accounting for 20,636 and 19,770, respectively. Currently Siem Reap airport operates 250 flights a week carrying more than 1,700 international travelers a day.
Despite the small arrivals thus far, the Ministry anticipates that Cambodia will attract about 1 million Chinese visitors in 2023. In early March, Ministry officials greeted the first China Eastern flight to resume operations, offering flowers to the pilot and a warm welcome to the 132 passengers on board.
Last month the government kicked off its “Visit Cambodia Year 2023” campaign, as part of an effort to attract at least 4 million international visitors in 2023. Next month, the country is hosting Songkran events in Siem Reap to coincide with Khmer New Year, for the first time since 2019. And in late April it will hold a pair of regional meetings on Mekong tourism in Sihanoukville.
In May, the government will host the SEA Games and ASEAN Para Games, both of which are expected to attract thousands of tourists.
“This will be an opportunity for Cambodia to promote the tourism industry and attract more investors,” said Top Sopheak, Tourism Ministry spokesman. In spite of government efforts, however, he noted that the continued impacts of the pandemic and fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had global implications that would likely continue to stall tourism growth.
“Even if the situation is better, the global issues means the tourism sector [recovery] remains uncertain,” he said, adding that the country is anticipating a full recovery by 2026.
The Ministry of Tourism’s annual report shows that Cambodia welcomed 2.28 million international visitors in 2022, compared to a combined 1.5 million in 2020 and 2021, earning $1.4 billion in revenue. The report shows 13,597 of tourism-based businesses provided 320,000 direct jobs last year.
In 2019 before the COVID-19 outbreak, Cambodia received more than 6.6 million international visitors.
As part of its years-old “China Ready” strategy, aimed at promoting Chinese tourism, the government has been working to boost Chinese language skills among tour guides, support tour infrastructure, and improve the quality of tourism services.
In another province heavily reliant on tourism, Preah Sihanouk, tourism department director Taing Socheat Kroesna said there are only three flights to the city each week compared to 35 a day prior to the pandemic.
“Most are local tourists who visit on the weekends as international visitors remain low because almost no flights have resumed yet,” he said.
Thoun Sinan, president of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, said most foreign visitors arriving in Cambodia currently are investors and expats, followed by small numbers of tourists on package tours originating in Thailand and Vietnam.
He said the lack of promotion, tourism infrastructure, and direct international flights are the main obstacles to attracting foreign visitors.
“We have a lot of potential tourism products, but we did not use it and widely promote the destination to the world,” he said.