Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

High Fuel Prices a Blow to Cambodia’s Covid-hit Tourism Sector

Foreign passengers arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport, March 29, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang
Foreign passengers arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport, March 29, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

The Cambodian government has lifted all COVID-19 travel restrictions in the hopes of boosting the hard-hit tourism industry, but now businesses say sanctions on Russia and the resulting high energy prices are hampering the sector’s recovery.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Health announced travelers entering Cambodia were not required to have a CPR test as long as they had a vaccination certificate. And case numbers are falling, with the ministry recording only 39 infections on Tuesday and no deaths.

Despite the relaxed regulations and lower case-load, however, authorities in Siem Reap, the country’s most popular tourism destination, said most hotels remain closed.

“[Only] 40 percent of five-star hotels have reopened, and most are facing a lack of workers,” said Siem Reap governor Tea Seiha. “Most workers come from other provinces and they left Siem Reap during the pandemic, so it is difficult to call them back.”

However, Seiha said that smaller businesses like guesthouses were already fully reopened because they cost less to run and are easier to restart.

He said restaurants and beer gardens are also gradually reopening, and the provincial administration were preparing to welcome tourists over the Khmer New Year holiday in mid-April.

According to Seiha, the province is also seeing local and overseas flights gradually recover as things open up.

Clais Chenda, vice-president of the Cambodia Hotel Association (CHA) and the owner of hotels in Kep and Kratie provinces, said more than two years of the pandemic has left the industry seriously short-staffed.

“At first, we expected the virus to only last six months or a year,” she said, “But things didn’t go as expected and now most workers have already found new jobs. ”

She said both her hotels are facing a 60 percent staff shortage, but due to the low number of guests, they are still able to operate. However, she is concerned that when bookings get back to normal she won’t have enough workers.

Another obstacle to recovery for the industry is going to be the high price of energy, she predicted.  Prime Minister Hun Sen said during the inauguration of the Cambodia-Korea Friendship hospital on Monday that the high price of fuel could affect people’s travel expenses during Khmer New Year.

Chenda, whose hotels are offering discounted rates to attract foreign visitors, agreed that with the high price of gasoline, travelers would likely spend up to 40 percent of their total trip expenses on transport.

Foreign passengers arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport, March 29, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

According to data from the Ministry of Tourism, Cambodia welcomed 44,734 foreign visitors in Jan 2022, compared to 20,567 the previous January. But the pandemic-era figures are still a far cry from what they were, with 6.6 million international tourists visiting the country in 2019.

In another province heavily reliant on tourism, Preah Sihanouk, tourism department director Taing Socheat Kroesna, said about 70% of hotels and guesthouses have reopened.

“We are expecting to receive more visitors during the Khmer New Year if the COVID-19 situation stays stable,” he said. “Since the government canceled the CPR test requirements, we’ve received more foreign travelers from the West.” 

Pre-pandemic, the province saw 29 regular flights a day operated by 33 airlines. At the moment, only two airlines are operating, and there are three to five flights a week.

“Now we have only two airlines operating three to five flights a week, one of which connects with China’s Guangzhou Province,” he said.

Khek Norinda, a spokesman for Cambodia Airports, said he expected more airlines to resume flights to the country’s three international airports now that the government has relaxed entry requirements.

“As more countries in the region also ease their travel restrictions, we are confident the figures will increase,” he said.

He said in February, there were an average of 38 domestic and international daily flights operating, mostly out of Phnom Penh International Airport. Siem Reap airport has two airlines in operation – Singapore Airlines and Thai Smile, he added. But Sihanoukville’s traffic is still very low and reliant on the Chinese market.

But the travel and aviation industries are being hit by new problems post-pandemic, namely increased costs due to sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

“We need time to measure the impact and extent of the conflict on those sectors worldwide and specifically in Cambodia,” he said.

Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents, said the rising energy prices will almost certainly be a blow to tourism.

​“Some tour agencies already offered package deals three months ago, so now they’re facing additional losses due to the high price of gasoline,” she said. “People may cancel their travel plans.”