Siem Reap master plan highlights Cambodia’s will to welcome back international travelers

As Cambodia prepares for reopening, the country”s new tourism master plan will play a key role in promoting post-pandemic recovery of the sector, experts say.

“(The master plan) comes at a key moment that sees the tourism industry awaken after a prolonged pandemic which caused a slump in travel globally” and devastated the hospitality-related businesses, Arnaud Darc, president of the Cambodia Restaurant Association, told China Daily.

“The time to rebuild has come,” said Darc, who is also chairman and CEO of the Thalias Hospitality Group, one of Cambodia’s premier hospitality companies.

Cambodia launched the Siem Reap Tourism Development Master Plan 2021-35 on Oct 20.

The master plan will “play an important role to promote the quality, safety and sustainable development of the tourism industry in the province in the post-COVID-19 pandemic era,” Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Aun Pornmoniroth said at the online launch event, according to Xinhua News Agency.

Tourism Minister Thong Khon said the master plan prescribed seven key strategic areas for the province’s tourism development.

That includes development of major tourist sites, development of new tourism products, promotion of tourism, enhancement of the quality and sustainability of provincial tourism, environmental management, development of infrastructure, connectivity and tourism governance, he said.

According to the master plan, Siem Reap was expected to attract 7.5 million international tourists and 10.9 million domestic tourists by 2035, creating some 940,000 jobs and generating about $5.9 billion in revenue.

Siem Reap province, in northwestern Cambodia, is home to the 400-square-kilometer Angkor Archeological Park, the kingdom’s most popular tourism destination that was inscribed on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1992.

About 2.2 million out of some 6.6 million international tourists to Cambodia visited the centuries-old temple complex in 2019, yielding gross revenue of $99 million in ticket sales. But in the first nine months of 2021, only about 6,100 foreign visitors visited the park, according to Xinhua.

Heng Kimkong, visiting senior research fellow at the Cambodia Development Center, a Phnom Penh-based think tank, said the master plan is vital to Cambodia tourism’s post-pandemic recovery as it came at a much-needed time when the kingdom needs to bounce back from the economic fallout caused by COVID-19.

“It is essential to have the tourism master plan which will provide clear strategies and directions on how to restore the tourism sector and leverage it to its full potential after the pandemic,” Heng told China Daily.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the related travel restrictions have hit Cambodia hard as tourism accounts for a sizable contribution to the nation’s economy.

“Up until 2019, tourism was the country’s second-largest growth driver that contributed almost 20 percent of real GDP,” said Darc from the Cambodia Restaurant Association, noting that the COVID outbreak has led to the beginning of a socio-economic crisis unseen for years for Siem Reap as the pandemic pulled down employment and household savings.

“Almost all hospitality enterprises suspended their activity or closed permanently,”  Darc pointed out.

The launch of the master plan comes as Cambodia gears up to reopen its economy and welcome back vaccinated foreign travelers.

Media reports have said earlier that the Southeast Asian nation was preparing to open up the country for vaccinated travelers in November.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Oct 22 that the country will gradually resume economic activities in the lead-up to full reopening, given that the domestic COVID-19 situation has improved significantly with fewer daily infections and deaths, according to The Phnom Penh Post.

Cambodia reported 128 new COVID-19 cases on Oct 24, bringing the total tally to 117,772, according to data released by the country’s health ministry. It was the lowest daily increase since early April. The number of active cases also dropped significantly to just above 2,000 from more than 5,000 a month ago.

Cambodia has vaccinated 85.4 percent of its 16-million population as of Oct 24. Around 81 percent of people have been fully vaccinated with two doses, according to official data.

“Without its high vaccination rate, it will be impossible for Cambodia to open its doors to foreign tourists, let alone local holidaymakers,” said Cambodia Development Center’s Heng.

China has provided 34.8 million COVID-19 vaccines to Cambodia as of Oct 14, including 5.8 million doses donated by the Chinese government and 500,000 donated by the vaccine maker Sinovac Biotech, according to the Chinese embassy in Cambodia.

Noting that Cambodia has also drawn a roadmap for tourism recovery during and after COVID-19, Darc said the kingdom’s plan to boost tourism will propel the industry into a virtuous cycle.

“With the opportunities it creates … I expect to see investments flowing in the sector in the coming 3 to 4 years (will be) even more than (what) we have seen pre-COVID-19,” Darc said.

Besides tourism, Heng from the Cambodia Development Center said the kingdom also needs to find ways to improve its agricultural sector, support the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises, expand its skilled workforce, and move away from a low-skilled, labor-intensive growth model.

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