Qatar Airways’ inaugural flight from Doha to Phnom Penh touched town shortly before 2 p.m. on Wednesday, making the state-owned carrier the first Middle Eastern airline to fly to Cambodia.
Flight QR602—which taxied to Phnom Penh International Airport’s VIP terminal to much fanfare—will be followed by daily flights between Doha and Phnom Penh, with a stop in Ho Chi Minh City. Aboard the gray-and-purple 284-seat Airbus A330 was Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, who disembarked with an entourage of officials from the oil-rich Arab state.
After a red-carpet welcome and traditional Apsara dance performance, Mr. Al Baker addressed a crowd of more than 100 that included State Secretariat of Civil Aviation Secretary of State Mao Havanall, Cambodia Angkor Air Chairman Tek Reth Samrach, Qatari Ambassador to Thailand Jabor Bin Ali Al-Dosari, and Cambodia Airports CEO Emmanuel Menanteau.
“I do realize that there could be a slight disappointment that we are coming here and going back via Ho Chi Minh City,” Mr. Al Baker said. “But I assure you that in a very near future, Qatar Airways will be operating direct flights daily to Cambodia as we receive more and more airplanes,” he said, boasting that the airline adds a new plane to its fleet every 12 days.
“Cambodia has…dynamic tourist and business destinations thanks to your aggressive prime minister,” Mr. Al Baker said. “So there was a desperate need to provide greater air access to facilitate movement for business and leisure travelers to and from the country.”
Mr. Al Baker also hinted that the airline might soon add daily flights to Siem Reap International Airport using Boeing 787 Dreamliners, which “unfortunately are grounded for the time being.” Last month, Qatar Airways was ordered by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to ground its five Dreamliners due to a fire risk associated with the lithium-ion batteries used in the model.
Speaking after the event—which concluded with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and an exchange of gifts—attendees remarked on the similarities to the pageantry that accompanied Air France’s first flight to Cambodia after a 37-year absence, in March 2011. Air France announced in November that it would cease all flights between Paris and Phnom Penh in March due to low passenger numbers.
But Mr. Al-Dosari, the Qatari ambassador to Thailand, who also serves as envoy to Cambodia, said he expected the new route would be successful, partly because it would serve Arab businessmen looking to invest in Cambodia and elsewhere in the region.
“All the Mekong River [countries], like Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, even Laos, they are moving,” he said, adding that it was too soon to say what Cambodian investment opportunities would prove most attractive.
“I cannot [speculate] regarding the business, which kind of business,” he said. “We’ll see what we can do with this [destination].”
Tourism officials said that while Qatar Airways’ intention to operate daily flights to Phnom Penh—and possibly Siem Reap—was ambitious, the route would draw passengers from around the world, as the gulf state is largely used as a transit stop between other destinations.
“At the beginning, it will be hard [for the airline]” said Sdoeung Sokhom, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Tourism, “But I think things will improve, because Qatar Airway’s network includes more than 100 countries, so it won’t just bring people from the Middle East, but also people from countries like the U.S. and those in Europe.”
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