U.A.E.-based airline Emirates has announced it will open flights to Phnom Penh from Dubai for the first time, but industry analysts have expressed mixed feelings over the prospects ahead for the carrier.
The first flight from Dubai is due to touch down in Phnom Penh on Saturday evening after a brief stopover in Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital.
The airline’s country manager, Mohammad Sarhan, said it hoped to “play a significant role” in the growth of Cambodia’s economy by opening the route.
“Cambodia is a new, but regionally and globally significant, destination in Asia for both tourism and business,” he said in an email.
“In the long term, we will continue to assess and carefully analyze the market, its performance and needs, which will show if there are more opportunities for us to further expand our presence,” he added.
Soeung Sophary, spokeswoman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce, said the entrance of the “high-standard airline” into the country was a “positive sign.”
Just 17,000 of Cambodia’s 5 million foreign visitors last year came from the Middle East, and the government is hoping Emirates flights will improve this figure.
Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents, said the route would benefit both Europeans and people from Middle Eastern countries.
“It will be attractive and convenient for the passengers that Emirates jumps to start with daily flight,” Sivlin said.
“Some local consumers will think twice about the price, while I believe that there will be some locals who will want to try the new service.”
Increasing numbers of Cambodian are flying abroad to seek medical treatment, on business trips and for tourism purposes. According to official figures, last year saw a 20 percent increase in the number of Cambodians traveling abroad.
Phan Sreyrith, an NGO worker who traveled for the first time to the Middle East last week, said the new flights would be out of reach for many Cambodians. “It’s too expensive,” Sreyrith said.
Sophary, however, said she thought competition would drive the prices down over time.
Miguel Chanco, an Asean analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, said the expansion of the big Middle Eastern airlines had brought Asia and Europe closer together.
“The big three Middle East airlines (Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar) have brought Asia much closer to Europe, and vice versa, in recent years, by providing more competition to once untouchable cross-continental services,” Chanco said in an email.
“Notwithstanding the new route through Phnom Penh, I would not be surprised if airlines such as the Emirates continue to focus most of their efforts in Asean on the larger and slightly more attractive markets (from the perspective of purchasing power) like Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines,” he added.
Qatar Airways, an affiliated business of the State of Qatar, has been since 2013 a daily carrier back and forth between Phnom Penh and Qatar’s capital of Doha, frequently positioning itself as a stopover to Europe. The new Emirates route will therefore pose a direct challenge to Qatar, which currently stands at odds with the U.A.E. after a diplomatic row boiled over earlier this month that saw the countries cut ties.
Chanco said the dispute could put pressure on Qatar Airways, which would benefit Emirates.
Qatar Airways did not respond to requests for comment.