In reopening tourism, Cambodia trying to avoid making Thailand’s mistakes

Tourists visit the Angkor Wat temple site in pre-pandemic days.

In percentage terms, the small Cambodian kingdom is as dependent financially on international tourism as Thailand.  During the pandemic, both countries have seen dramatic reductions in revenue with Cambodia losing over US$3 billion in the last year.

But Phnom Penh authorities are now considering a careful reopening of international tourism in the last quarter of 2021.  Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents, said that recent Thai moves in the much-heralded Sandboxes provided warnings for his country.  He believed the concept was too complicated.

The main thrust of the Cambodian initiative is to open the 12th century Angkor Wat archaeological site to fully vaccinated foreigners from October 2021.  They would be accommodated and relax in the neighboring town of Siem Reap which, like Pattaya, is currently a ghost town because of the collapse of international tourism.

Superficially, the plan looks rather like the Phuket Sandbox initiative, but there are important differences.  Whilst international arrivals in Phuket will need advance clearance from Thai embassies abroad and be subject to insurance and entry fees, Cambodia would allow groups of foreigners simply to land and show their passports and vaccination certificates to immigration authorities.  The important thing is to cut the bureaucracy at international checkpoints.

Siem Reap airport has been redesigned to cope with future crowds.

The Cambodian Ministry of Tourism said that no final decisions had yet been taken, but the vital thing was to simplify the entry procedures as much as possible.  Thourn Sinan, chairman of the Cambodian chapter of the Pacific Area Travel Association, pointed out that Thailand had constantly changed the Sandbox model and some of the Phuket detail still had not been agreed just days before the formal beginning.

Other ideas currently under discussion in Phnom Penh are abolishing the US$30 fee on arrival which has traditionally been charged to all visitors by land and air, cancelling insurance fees and deposits currently required of entrants, providing evening entertainment in the form of cultural shows and avoiding the wearing of tracing bracelets.

Cambodia has made more progress than her larger neighbor in moving towards herd immunity.  Already 2.3 million Cambodians have received both doses of the vaccine, with 10 million being the target to have received at least one dose by the autumn.  Prime minister Hun Sen has said that tourists will feel safer when they know the high levels of vaccination in his country.

However, according to international travel agencies, there are some doubts about the Cambodian reopening plans.  “Cambodia is even more dependent than is Thailand on China for its international market and Beijing authorities have made clear there will be no charter flights this calendar year,” said Robert Markus of South East Asia Travel Group.  Other concerns are the absence of information on the serving of alcohol, whether health tests will be obligatory during the vacation and whether independent travellers, as well as tour groups, will be able to take advantage of the pilot scheme.


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