Cambodia’s tourist sector in turmoil after Covid-19 travel restrictions4 min read

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Workers maintain the grounds of the Angkor Archeological Park amid a dearth of tourists in April. Panha Chhorpoan
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Tourist arrivals to Siem Reap province fell by 60 percent year-on-year in the first five months of 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions, with only eight tourists recorded visiting Angkor Wat during the Khmer New Year break, an official said.

Siem Reap province deputy governor Ly Samreth told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday that the government’s recent ban on travellers from the U.S. and several European countries had caused the dramatic drop.

“For the five months, tourists were about 60 percent and most of the decrease was in April and May — there were more than 600 tourists in April, and more than 1,700 tourists in May,” Samreth said, adding only 8 people visited Angkor Wat during the new year period, when there was an inter-province travel ban.

Samreth called on Cambodians to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding attractions of Siem Reap, but also said they should exercise caution. He said many people seemed to falsely believe that Siem Reap’s famous tourist industry — including hotels, markets and restaurants — had all closed down already.

He said about 60 to 70 percent of people employed in tourism in the province had lost their jobs or been temporarily suspended from work and that more than 100 guest houses had also shut down. But he also said many remained.

“Please, Cambodian people, go to visit Siem Reap province,” Samreth said, “but it is important that you take care based on the advice from the Health Ministry.”

Ngov Sengkak, the director of Siem Reap’s provincial tourism department, said Covid-19 had struck Cambodia’s tourism sector hard. He estimated that about 80,000 people directly benefited from tourist inflows and around another 300,000 were indirect beneficiaries. All would now be hurting financially, he said.

The problem was now heading into its third month, despite the government beginning to ease restrictions on travel and commerce, Sengkak said.

“The problem of the tourism sector falling down due to the Covid-19 disease started in Cambodia on March 4, when most air flights were canceled across the country, including to Siem Reap province,” he explained.

He said 220,000 foreign tourists visited Siem Reap in January, which was only a slight fall of 17 percent from the 270,000 tourists in January 2019. 

But then arrivals in February fell 57 percent year-on-year in February — and then in March fell by 82 percent year-on-year. The 645 tourists who visited in April, after the combination of foreign and domestic travel bans, was a 99.64-percent fall, while the 1,776 tourists in May was a 98-percent fall, Sengkak said.

Siem Reap province deputy police chief Teng Channath said he assured tourists looking to visit Angkor Wat and Siem Reap that the province was still safe.

“In general, the security and safety situation in Siem Reap province is normal,” Channath said, explaining that the provincial governor had ordered a 24-hour police watch on the popular “Pub Street” party zone of Siem Reap city.

“Even though [there are fewer tourists], we work hard to keep the security and safety for all the foreign and local tourists who go to visit Siem Reap province.”

Tourism Ministry spokesman Top Sopheak said he could not predict when things might turn back to normal. He noted that foreign travellers still faced heavy restrictions on travelling to Cambodia — including requirements for proof of Covid-19 negative status and a 14-day quarantine — but said that if the country continued to see few new cases of infection, things could slowly change.

“Even though the Covid-19 disease situation has eased a little bit, there is not yet momentum with foreign tourists because we still have some restrictions on foreign travelers,” Sopheak said. “If we can manage the Covid-19 disease well until the end of 2020, the tourism sector will start its movement.”

However, Sopheak also said he could envision a very slow recovery. “If there is no Covid-19 vaccine, the tourism sector will still have its problems,” he said.

Cambodian Association of Travel Agents (CATA) president Chhay Sivlin said that the situation was increasingly dire for many of the people in Siem Reap who had grown accustomed to a steady flow of tourists. She said the only places still open in Siem Reap were the big hotels, even though they had almost no guests. 

Most tourist markets and restaurants had closed, she said, and those who relied on tourist dollars to make a living were being forced to consider new vocations.

“Some big hotels in Siem Reap province continue to open because they can not close as it is related to some laws — for example, the Sofitel hotel,” Sivlin said. “If Covid-19 prolongs into the future, the tourism sector will be seriously affected.”

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