How the pandemic has changed the face of tourism in Siem Reap

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Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap devoid of its usual throng of tourists amid the pandemic.
Photo: TTG Asia

It’s been almost 18 months since Cambodia closed its doors on international tourists, leaving its dominant tourism economy in tatters. Nowhere in the nation has felt it harder than Siem Reap, a city whose economy is heavily reliant on tourism.

While international arrivals to the town had already started to slow pre-pandemic, in 2019, Siem Reap welcomed 2.2 million international visitors to explore Angkor Wat alone. In April 2020, Cambodia closed to tourists in a bid to control the spread of Covid. Last year, it recorded zero deaths and less than 400 cases, mostly imported and caught at the border.

This threw one small lifeline in the form of domestic tourism. While volumes were far from enough to keep the tourist-centric town afloat, locals and expats flocked to Siem Reap on weekends and public holidays to experience the temples without tourists.

Pandemic’s long-term toll
However, this year has dealt additional blows. In February, coronavirus started spreading countrywide, triggering ongoing restrictions, including lockdowns, curfews and alcohol bans. It has also virtually brought domestic travel to a standstill.

According to David-Jaya Piot, president of the Cambodia Hotel Association in Siem Reap, only 10 per cent of 2019’s hotel rooms are available today, with rates hitting an all-time low. He said: “In the hotel business, this is quite difficult to come back from, especially after a crisis like this… Bankruptcies have harmed product diversity and there has been a drain in human capital as jobs have become scarce.”

In addition, the US$149 million 38 Roads project, which has seen all of the centre’s major roads torn up, has hammered another nail in the town’s coffin as surviving businesses struggle to stay afloat amid further uncertainty over when tourists will return.

Adam Rodwell, co-founder of Little Red Fox Espresso café, said: “The pandemic has changed the face of tourism in Siem Reap forever. With such a sudden and prolonged cut of income, we’ve lost so many incredible businesses. With that, we’ve also lost many incredibly skilled people. The long-term effects of that absence of skill can’t be understated.”

Hospitality staff returning to families to farm is common. Elsewhere, tour guides are delivering food and a hotel operations manager is working at a concrete factory. Nick Ray, product director at Hanuman Travel, noted: “Rescaling and rebuilding staff will be a major challenge. They’ve been in hibernation from tourism for 18 months now.”

Many hospitality businesses that have not closed have relocated to the capital in a bid to survive. Award-winning Wat Damnak shuttered its Siem Reap operations in April and relocated to Phnom Penh after reducing operations from five- to two-days a week proved economically unviable.

Co-owner and director, Nguon Vengchhay, said: “With the domestic market, two days a week wasn’t healthy for us in the long run. The plans to improve infrastructure also made it hard to keep open. At one point, we couldn’t access the restaurant for days.”

Read the full article at TTG Asia:

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