Thai Upheaval Puts Tourism Plan in Jeopardy

The Ministry of Tourism said during a meeting Monday that as Thailand’s tourism industry languishes amid political upheaval, leading to a steep drop in Chinese tourists, Cambodia must ensure that its own efforts to turn the country into a haven for Chinese tourists aren’t dashed.

During the first four months of this year, both Thailand and Cambodia saw a sharp slowdown in tourists from China, a major market for Southeast Asian countries and the centerpiece of the Cambodian government’s tourism expansion plans.

“Chinese tourists, which have become more important in recent years, tend to be particularly volatile,” says a report distributed by the Ministry of Tourism on Monday.

While the number of Chinese tourists to Cambodia has continued to increase this year, the rapid growth of last year has slowed significantly, with the number of Chinese tourist arrivals in the first four months this year growing just 18.2 percent, compared to 55 percent year-on-year growth in 2013.

Just over 463,000 Chinese nationals visited Cambodia last year. The government has laid out ambitious plans to attract at least 1.3 million Chinese tourists by 2018 with a ramped up marketing campaign, more direct flights, additional Chinese-speaking tour guides and officially designated Chinatowns in tourist-heavy cities.

But rather than despair over the situation in Thailand, where international tourist arrivals have fallen by six percent this year, Cambodia’s private and public sector should use the situation to boost Cambodia’s brand in the crucial market of China, said Neb Samouth, a director general at the Ministry of Tourism.

“We should reinforce our cooperation with Chinese tour operators. This is a chance for us to make an attractive package to attract Chinese people,” he said, speaking at a panel discussion at the ministry entitled “Neighbor’s Political Unrest: What It Means for Cambodian Tourism?”

Mr. Samouth urged tour operators and airlines to make concerted efforts to build relations with companies in Malaysia and Singapore to give international travelers a chance to bypass Thailand on their trips to the region.

“We should promote collaboration with low-cost carriers and encourage airlines to propose charter flights that link directly from Cambodia to other countries so tourists can come to Cambodia as part of a package,” he said.

“If we can attract this kind of flight it will offset future crises.”

Khek Norinda, communication director for Cambodia Airports, said that flight cancellations from Bangkok to both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports have been up since March, noting that both Bangkok Airways and Cambodia Angkor Air have reported “low loads.”

Thourn Sinan, president of the Cambodia chapter of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, said that although 35 percent of travelers to Cambodia pass through Bangkok, he is optimistic it will be easy to encourage travelers to divert their routes.

“Travel agents should take this opportunity to convince their partners to introduce their clients to visit Cambodia through other countries rather than Thailand,” he said.

But Jonathan Bond, general manager of sales and marketing at the Sydney-based Center for Asia-Pacific Aviation, said that getting tourists to avoid Thailand when coming to Cambodia is highly ambitious.

“Bangkok is a major transit point, so you don’t just rub it off when something bad happens, he said. “You wait to and see what the impact is.”

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