Friday, 15 May 2009

Visitors to Cambodia dip as global economic crisis continues

CARMICHAEL: Leave the famous jungle temple - known as Ta Phrom - outside Cambodia's tourism capital of Siem Reap and - as you can hear - you are surrounded by vendors selling cold drinks, musical instruments and postcards. Cambodia has relied for a decade on the expanding tourist trade as one of its pillars for economic growth. A record 2.1 million people visited the country last year.

So the news that tourism numbers have dropped in the first quarter of 2009 from the same period last year is not good. Overall the number is down just three and a half percent to 622,000 which is better than the government had feared. But the headline figure tells only one part of the story. Tourists from richer countries such as Japan and South Korea have dropped by a third, with short-term visitors from neighbouring Vietnam making up the numbers.

And that is why tourism worker Ell Lavy - a 25-year-old driver of a motorised rickshaw around the temples of Angkor Wat - has seen his monthly earnings drop from one hundred US dollars to just seventy. Previously he would get two or three tourists a week - now he is lucky to have one.

LAVY: You know last year when I recommend them to another place they say no problem for them. But this year when I invite them to somewhere they say they that no - they have no money to pay everything. [CARMICHAEL: So you have noticed they are spending less money, and there are less tourists?] Yes, less tourists also.

CARMICHAEL: Government figures show the number of visitors from South Korea and Japan, which last year provided the largest and third-largest number of foreign visitors respectively, dropped by one-third to around 100,000 in the first quarter of this year.

Gregory Anderson is the general manager of the upmarket Le Meridien Angkor hotel in Siem Reap. He has noticed there are fewer Japanese tourists in town, and says occupancy rates are down 20 percent for Siem Reap's upmarket hotels. He blames the global economic situation, as well as political volatility in Thailand and an ongoing border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.

So in the face of lower spending on travel and tourism in the current global downturn, what can Cambodia do to boost visitor numbers? Tourism Minister Dr Thong Khon says he is targeting countries that are less affected by the global slump. And he is optimistic that 2009 could yet prove better than last year. But he says Cambodia is not helped by problems in Thailand.

KHON: Because you know Thailand is a main gate to Cambodia. Thirty three percent of total arrivals to Cambodia come from Thailand by air, by water, by land. When Thailand is affected, so it affects Cambodia too.

CARMICHAEL: To minimize that problem, the ministry is trying to boost short-haul flights from within the ten-member ASEAN nation and China, Japan and South Korea. Cambodia has already scrapped visa requirements for nationals within a number of ASEAN states. And he says the private sector must work to make the country more attractive - including using discounts for hotels and restaurants.

But making Cambodia more attractive isn't helped by the trickle of reported crimes against foreign tourists, some of them serious. The most high-profile was that a friend of Britain's Princess Eugenie had her handbag stolen in Phnom Penh recently. What does he think of the incident?

KHON: In Cambodia the whole country is completely safe and secure. But the thing that happened is not everywhere. Sometimes like this or like that. But the case of the princess - we checked with the police, we checked everywhere - they have no information. If the case really happened, why did they not report it to the police?

CARMICHAEL: Dr Thong Khon says the global crisis has seen Cambodia downgrade its estimate of tourist arrivals for 2015 by around one-fifth to 4 million visitors. So what message will he take to the region to try and boost visitor numbers?

KHON: Many tourists come to stay in home-stay, in the countryside, on some islands, for one month, for two weeks with the family. From Scandinavia, from Australia. They come from everywhere. No problem. Come. Come to stay in Cambodia.

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