The arrival of Chinese tourists is viewed as a new lease of life for Cambodia’s tourism sector. With the government putting the ‘China Ready’ strategy in place to woo tourists that includes providing language and culture training for staff, preparing Chinese-speaking tour guides among other things and more importantly with quarantine-free travel, it’s only time Cambodia’s tourist target will be met on predictable lines.
The excitement was quite palpable. Minister of Tourism Thong Khon, Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian and Minister in charge of the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation Mao Havannall along with several other dignitaries, airport officials, representatives of tour and travel associations and other stakeholders were eagerly awaiting the arrival of a flight at the well decked-up Phnom Penh International Airport on February 7.
As the Air China (CA745) flight with 125 Chinese passengers on board hit the tarmac and taxied towards the main airport building, smiles broke out on everybody’s face. The plane was given the traditional water cannon salute at the airport. As the Chinese travellers disembarked the plane, they were accorded a warm welcome, led by the Tourism Minister.
It was the first flight from Beijing to Phnom Penh after China allowed its citizens to travel abroad on January 8 and opened the way for group tourism to select countries. They (Chinese tourists) are expected to visit the capital city of Phnom Penh, the cultural province of Siem Reap, and the coastal province of Preah Sihanouk during their five-day tour.
After welcoming the guests, the Minister of Tourism said, “After the arrival of this first group of Chinese tourists, we will strive to attract some 800,000 to 1 million Chinese tourists in 2023.” Also, the first flights from Kunming and Shanghai will arrive in Siem Reap cultural province on February 16, the Minister added.
Similar welcome scenes have been witnessed at various airports in the ASEAN member states and other countries. Every country has been awaiting the revival of outbound tourism from China after the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered the world and sapped many destinations that were dependent upon Chinese tourism dollars.
On February 6, when the first two Chinese tour groups arrived in Bangkok officials from the Thai tourism authority and the Chinese Embassy in Thailand received the tourists from Guangzhou at the Don Mueang International Airport with flowers and welcome gifts.
In Singapore, one of the most popular destinations among Chinese travellers, the first Chinese tour group, after China resumed outbound group travel, was greeted by authorities at the airport on Monday. During their trip, the group will experience the culture and customs of Singapore and sample authentic local food.
“We are positive that the incoming flow of Chinese group tours will contribute to the early success of meeting our target of 4 million international tourists this year. Since the reopening of China’s border to allow locals to travel abroad, we have, thus far, received nine groups, specifically around 2,000 tourists on February 6 alone,” Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA), told Khmer Times.
On the arrivals in Cambodia, Stephen King, Chief Commercial Officer for Cambodia Airports, told Khmer Times, “China only opened up tour groups to travel from Monday (February 6) and from that first day we saw organised tour groups arriving on flights.”
“China opened for quarantine-free travel on January 8 and we saw an impact straight away with load factors growing. January 23 saw around a double number of pax (the number of passengers carried by airline) travelling to/from China compared to December 22,” the Chief Commercial Officer for Cambodia Airports remarked.
Meanwhile, what may sound like music to the Covid-19 pandemic-stressed ears, the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has projected that international tourist arrivals could reach 80-95 percent of pre-pandemic levels in 2023 despite the lingering global headwinds.
According to the UNWTO data released on January 17, more than 900 million tourists travelled internationally in 2022, which was double the number recorded in 2021. However, the tourist arrivals were still 63 percent of the pre-pandemic levels, it added.
While the Middle East enjoyed the strongest relative increase as arrivals climbed to 83 percent of pre-pandemic numbers, Europe reached nearly 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels as it welcomed 585 million travellers in 2022, and Africa and the Americas both recovered about 65 percent of their pre-pandemic visitors, the UNWTO said indicating an impending revival of the tourism business.
However, Asia and the Pacific reached only 23 percent due to stronger pandemic-related restrictions, which have started to be removed only in recent months, it said without mentioning China, one of the largest global tourist source markets. Several destinations have already recovered 2019 levels, the report added.
As outbound tourism from China has begun, over 2.87 million Chinese nationals travelled to foreign destinations during the 2023 Spring Festival, which is an increase of 120.5 percent against the same period of last year, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said recently. Interestingly, the majority of these tourists visited Southeast Asian countries, according to data from the Chinese travel portal trip.com.
During the January 21-27 festive days, Chinese nationals also made 308 million domestic trips, which is an increase of 23.1 percent over the pre-pandemic year, and back to 88.6 percent of the 2019 level for the same period.
According to the Chinese travel website LY.com, Southeast Asian countries have become the most popular travel destinations for Chinese tourists since the resumption of outbound tourism after a three-year gap due to the pandemic. Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have emerged as the top tourist attractions, it added.
The start of large arrivals from China has re-kindled early revival hopes among Cambodia’s tour and travel sector stakeholders as well as for economic growth in the post-pandemic times.
“With the current incoming flow of international tourists as well as expected target, our tourism industry is positively ready to serve them,” the CATA president said. On early achievement of the tourist target, she said, “We will device necessary plans and actions to meet the needs of the new target as well.”
In the first month of the new year (Year of the Rabbit as per the Chinese traditional calendar), as many as 400,000 foreign visitors arrived in the Kingdom. Of this, around 25,000 were Chinese tourists. The total arrivals were 794 percent more than the same month of the last year. However, the numbers were 38 percent less than in the same period of the pre-pandemic year of 2019, according to the Tourism Ministry. The share of Chinese tourists during January showed an increase of 901 percent over the first month of the previous year. But it was 86.3 percent less compared with the same period in 2019.
According to a UOB Global Economics & Market Research report released on February 3, the international tourism sector is expected to make a big leap forward this year as China has reopened its borders and eased domestic restrictions.
To make travel to Cambodia further easy, more comfortable and more attractive for the Chinese nationals, the Minister of Tourism said that the Kingdom will allow the use of the Chinese Renminbi at all hotels and restaurants, as well as for all tourism services. “Cambodia is ready to launch a number of measures to welcome Chinese tourists in 2023,” the Minister said.
After receiving around 2.3 million international tourists, more than 100,000 of them Chinese, in 2022, Cambodia expects to welcome more than 4.3 million international tourists in 2023. Of this, nearly 2 million are likely to be Chinese tourists.
Cambodia, which has been following the World Tourism Organization’s guidance, has developed many action plans and implemented several strategies to woo tourists emerging from China. It includes the “China Ready” strategy, which comprises developing and setting up a China Ready Centre, providing language and culture training for officials and staff, preparing Chinese-speaking tour guides, and making available better infrastructure support and improved tourism services.
The country has also worked out and implemented several plans to improve seven areas of tourism services – hotels, restaurants, tour operators, travel agents, resorts, supermarkets and souvenir shops. It has also set up five criteria for customer services, including front-line staff who can speak Chinese, promoting the Chinese language through digital means, Chinese product labels, and standard quality services.
Adding to the promising scenario, the “Travel & Tourism Economic Impact” report, an annual publication by the London-based World Travel & Tourism Council, said the recovery of the travel industry in Asia-Pacific is likely to contribute over 71 percent to the economy of the region. The next year (2024) will see further strengthening of the industry in the region, the report added.
As international tourists prefer to fly to their selected destinations, most countries have prepared their airports and are trying to establish new air links. “Our three international airports are well-resourced to accommodate more visitors. With our airline and civil aviation partners, our teams constantly monitor the evolution in all source markets to adjust our capacity to the influx of passengers,” Norinda Khek, Communication & PR Director of Cambodia Airports, told Khmer Times, on the preparedness to handle the influx of tourists.
To meet the demand of the forthcoming passenger increase, “we have re-injected capacity,” he said, adding, “In particular, we look forward to rebuilding the network between China and Cambodia.”
According to the Ministry of Tourism’s report on 17 January, there were 10,938 flight movements in Cambodia in 2022, an increase from 2,139 flights recorded in 2021. The airports saw passenger traffic increase to 2.4 million in 2022, and 27 international airlines operated flights in and out of the Kingdom by the end of the year.
The Phnom Penh International Airport received 1.97 million passengers in 2022 (8,740 flights), followed by Siem Reap with 372,000 passengers (1,738 flights), and Sihanoukville with 39,000 passengers on 640 flights.
To a Khmer Times question on the readiness of Cambodian airports to welcome an increase in arrivals from China as well as other destinations, the Communication & PR Director said, “Yes, our three international airports have the physical capacity to accommodate the anticipated increase of pax. We have time and room to go for the ramp-up at Siem Reap and Sihanoukville airports where traffics are still behind the pre-Covid-19 levels. We are confident that Cambodia’s air sector will properly cope with further growth and provide travellers with the expected experience.”
On the steps to attract more visitors, Norinda Khek said, “To welcome more visitors to Cambodia, the airports and the aviation and tourism stakeholders have stepped up campaigns to promote Cambodia as a distinctive destination. We recently organised a farm trip in Sihanoukville… The focus is now on promoting the coming SEA Games.”
At present, 27 airlines, including six airlines from China, are operating flights to and from Cambodia and the number of air carriers catering to the Cambodian market is likely to go up. “We expect that there will be more airlines and flights from China in the near future,” Sin Chansereyvutha, Undersecretary of State and Spokesman at the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation, was quoted as saying by Xinhua recently.
The Cambodian international airports serve 24 plus destinations and 11 countries. “Although the number of destinations has still to catch up with its pre-pandemic level, we have seen more flights resumption and frequencies, especially at the Phnom Penh International Airport,” said the Cambodia Airports’ PR Director.
Last year, about 2.38 million passengers disembarked from around 29,000 flights in Cambodia and the number is expected to increase as the scare of Covid-19 is on the decline.
“For 2023, we expect that the number of air passengers will be doubled thanks to China’s reopening,” the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation official said.
According to an estimate by the Ministry of Tourism, the country is hoping to receive 4 million plus visitors from across the world and to see around 15 million domestic tourists this year, which is likely to generate $4 billion in revenue.
On the issues facing the tourism industry, the CATA President told Khmer Times, “The three years of the pandemic took a massive toll on our tourism industry. Therefore, despite the positive direction our current international tourist numbers are heading, local tourism businesses remain facing some challenges in regard to financial and manpower situations. There have been approaches made to financial institutions for financial support. However, only businesses with positive financial reports have received the necessary assistance.
“Human resource itself is still posing a challenge for the tourism industry as some skilled workers are already invested with the jobs they had to take during the pandemic and are harder to convince to return.”
“We hope the return of Chinese tourists will help us recover our tourism sector rapidly because we see that Chinese tourists are very happy to come back to Cambodia,” the CATA president was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
It will also help generate new employment opportunities and income for the tourism stakeholders directly and create demand for farm and food products indirectly, the CATA president said.
To add to the general enthusiasm, cruise ship arrivals have also begun in the Kingdom.