Latest figures show that the number of international tourists visiting Cambodia has plummeted in the first eight months of 2019, especially in Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is situated and is the heart of the country’s tourism. The decline has raised concern among those who work in the sector, particularly travel agencies. Khmer Times meets with Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents, to discuss the issue.
What factors do you think are driving such a strong decline in the number of international tourists to Cambodia?
As we can see clearly, Siem Reap has seen a massive drop in foreign tourists. There are many factors leading to this problem. First of all, Cambodia is still lacking infrastructure, including roads, and English-speaking experts in tourism. We also do not have enough direct flights, which are very important to promoting tourism and to compete with other countries. Meanwhile, other nations, including our neighbours, are improving and increasing their tourist attractions, which allow them to draw more visitors into their country. On the other hand, we still do not having anything new. In the past few years, the number of international tourists kept increasing so dramatically that the private sector forgot to improve the quality of their service and products. In the meantime, their human resource was also going down, especially those who have to directly deal with the guests.
Have you ever conducted a comparative study on tourism in Cambodia and its neighbours as well as other countries in Southeast Asia?
We have, and we found out that other countries are already a few steps ahead of us. Like us, they have seen an increase in tourists in the past few years, but they did not see any drop. They are working hard to promote their services and keep upgrading their hospitality services. In Cambodia, however, the vendors or service providers almost ignore the importance of improvement, and instead become proud of the increasing number of visitors. In this digital age, the tourists who have been served badly on their visits to Cambodia write negative reviews online, which could change the minds of those wanting to visit Cambodia. The public services have also been contributing to this problem by making it harder and more complicated for tourists to travel in the country.
Tourism is one of the four economic pillars of Cambodia, meaning that it is crucial for the economic growth and poverty eradication. Ignoring the problem could have a negative implication for the future. Has CATA ever had a meeting or discussion with relevant stakeholders to find solutions?
Yes, we have. The Ministry of Tourism has paid great attention to this issue, and has held discussions with the private sector to solve it. The Ministry needs a solution which could be accepted by both sides. However, The Ministry of Tourism alone cannot solve this problem. We need effort from all related ministries such as the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, to restore our position. If we work together, it would not take long.
What are the changes that you wish for to bring back tourists to Cambodia?
We cannot let tourists simply come to Cambodia, visit Angkor Wat and go back home or to visit neighbour countries. There are many things that need to be done. The first thing is aviation. However, attractive our country is, it is useless if people cannot come to see it. Apart from the access to the country, we also need transportation and roads for them to go around. Speaking of the roads, we have to keep them clean. Also, we need to make the environment green to make tourists feel fresh and relaxed. Secondly, we have to increase and modify tourist resorts to make them the new destinations for travelling. The government also needs to build infrastructure to give these sites accessibility. People and travel agencies, in the meantime, need to increase the overall quality, including the quantity of goods and services for their guests, as well as to make money to improve their lives. Yet, most importantly, they must not rip tourist off or cheat them. This is something that will chase visitors away.
Concerning aviation, what do you think airline companies should do to contribute to bring tourists back to the country?
Amid the decline in tourists, airline companies should consider giving promotions to passengers. Waterways are also very important, and ships that bring thousands of visitors should be given a discount in pier pass fee or tax breaks to encourage them to come to Cambodia instead of our neighbours.
How about the sanitation? Many tourists complain that Cambodia is dirty, with piles of rubbish everywhere. Has the Ministry of Environment done anything about it?
The Ministry of Environment has done a lot to solve this problem, but some areas are under the control of other institutions. That’s why I keep repeating myself that we have to work together, to unite to solve the problem.
Is safety is big concern among tourists in Cambodia?
It is, and not a small one. It must be dealt with as soon as possible. Traffic accidents happen every day, and bag-snatchers and robbers make people afraid to travel. We have to protect our tourists or they will go away and even tell people they know not to come to Cambodia.