Leader talks: Chhay Sivlin on the opportunities and challenges for Cambodia’s tourism sector post COVID

Gareth Johnson

Ms Chhay Sivlin, President of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents speaks with CIR Leader Talks about the future trends and current challenges facing Cambodia’s tourism sector post COVID as well as what more policy makers can do to assist.

Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA) is the sole trade representative body for tourism in Cambodia with its website calling it “the single voice of Cambodia Tourism Agents and respective Tourism Industry Associations”.

The organization of local travel agents, therefore, acts as the middle ground between government and private stakeholders with regard to tourist policy and indeed recovery within the Kingdom.

Cambodia welcomed over 6 million guests in 2019, many of them Chinese, but is now only expecting 1 million international arrivals in 2022 according to government figures.

Although slow, the sector was showing promise according to Chhay Sivlin: “The overall recovery is rather slow yet steady. Tourism-related businesses are also slowly bouncing back as well while others are in the process of resuming operations”.

Diversifying from the Chinese market

Another area that was brought up was the perception that there had been an over-reliance on Chinese guests to Cambodia.

In 2019 Chinese tourists amounted to 2.4 million arrivals, or 36% of total visitors, a number which has dropped to relatively zero after China essentially locked its borders.

According to Chhay Sivlin this has actually represented a chance for diversification within the Kingdom stating: “Since reopening the vast majority of tourists have come from our neighbors Thailand and more specifically Vietnam”.

Overcrowding has been an ongoing concern in popular tourists destinations.

“Aside from the Chinese market, Cambodia is looking at other intra-ASEAN countries to promote due to their close proximity, as well as ease of travel and visa-free access,” she added.

She also touted India as a potentially huge market for Cambodia due to its fast-growing economy, proximity, and cultural similarities. Unlike China, India has completely reopened for inbound and outbound travel and has demonstrated increasing business interests.

Cambodia’s pivot towards eco and high-end tourism 

Another area of potential growth was through prioritizing high-end travelers, or the so-called “quality over quantity” angle that Cambodia could also benefit from, with examples such as the Shinta Mani Wild, as has been previously covered by Cambodia Investment Review being brought up as examples.

To read about the Shinta Mani Wild experience in Cambodia click here.

This according to Sivlin Chhay was a priority for CATA explaining: “Shinta Mani Wild is the perfect example of a glamping experience in the unspoiled nature and serenity of the country while offering a superior high-end experience. We certainly welcome more high-end investment within Cambodia”. 

It was in the eco-tourism sector that  Chhay Sivlin also saw huge growth potential and not just in the high-end arena stating: “We need a more diversified array of resorts to cater to all classes of tourists visiting the country.

“I would welcome more developments throughout Cambodia in this sector for us to attract more international tourists to more parts of the nation,” she added.

The $150 million stimulus package

In May, the Cambodian government announced a $150 million stimulus package to help the embattled tourism sector, but this has not been without controversy, with stakeholders complaining that accessing said funds had not exactly been easy.

To read about the Cambodian government’s $150 million tourism stimulus package click here.

Explaining what impact the announcement of the package had brought to the industry  Chhay Sivlin said: “The potential for the stimulus package is huge because businesses need to renovate and repair to return to pre-COVID standards, not to mention invest in human resources. In that respect, we welcome the move”.

High spending eco-tourism is proving popular for the recovering sector.

“However our members have not been able to access the money yet as it has not been released by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, despite the announcement,” she added.

She further explained that even when the funds do get released bureaucratic hurdles would likely result in the funds not reaching those most in need, stating: “Lenders will still be requiring financial documents from business owners that they do not have because of the COVID-19 crisis”.

Tourism businesses request more assistance to reopen

According to Chhay Sivlin, financial documents should not be a prerequisite for a business to access the funds as they were already struggling and are not now in a position where they can apply for loans.

“My proposed solution is the government should facilitate documentary requirements for business owners to apply for loans as part of the stimulus package, making it easier for them to access the funds in order to reform their companies”.

However, Chhay Sivlin was also keen to point out the areas in the Cambodian government had helped the industry and therefore its members, such as with regards to vaccinating the country, reopening borders, as well as investing in infrastructure.

According to CATA, they have also listed areas in the Cambodian government further assist to speed up the recovery of the industry. One such area was with regards to human resources and skilled tourist staff, with many having left the industry during the pandemic for other sectors.

She suggested the Cambodian government could offer free training sessions, as well as incentives for workers to return to the industry in readiness for the expected upsurge in tourist numbers.

In addition, the agents association also wanted to see help with issues during the period of the pandemic, particularly with regard to historic debts incurred over that time.

“Previous year’s debts and audits during the pandemic need to be waived. Many of our members fear reopening due to this problem and this could lead to the closure of many businesses, but also a loss of trained and professional tourist staff”.  

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