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Tourism Showing the Strain From Thai Crisis

With Thailand in the grips of a sustained political crisis, the Cambodian government has had to seek new strategies to draw in tourists and avoid relying on Bangkok as a gateway. But at least some damage has already been done.

Typically, around 40 percent of Cambodia’s 2 million visitors come through Thailand. But Tourism Minister Thong Khon told VOA Khmer that number is decreasing.

“Because of the situation in Thailand, we’re promoting other entrances,” he said. “In the past, we’ve advertised only on CNN in Europe and CNN in Asia, but in the near future we will advertise on CNN in America. And we have to promote direct flights and strengthen the quality of tourism services like food and accommodation.”

Cambodia is looking to Malaysia, Singapore, China, Hong Kong and Vietnam as places where tourists might fly in from, in an industry that remains one of the country’s top earners.

Nearly 2.2 million people visited Cambodia last year, a small increase from the year before. About 1 million of those came from Thailand, either by air or road.

But a prolonged political protest there that ended in violence last week has caused a significant reduction at the land border of Poipet—where about 10 percent of travelers typically pass. Border officials there say the number of tourists coming each day has dropped from about 900 to 600.

Meanwhile, national hotel bookings have fallen between 10 percent and 15 percent, especially in Siem Reap, said Lu Meng, president of the Cambodia Hotel Association. He worries government strategies to improve the situation won’t take effect until next year or so. For now, he said, improved tourism depends on an improved Thai situation.

However, it is not yet clear how much Cambodia has lost since unrest began in Thailand.

Tourism, garment manufacturing and construction together make up a third of Cambodia’s $10 billion GDP, but the tourism sector here remains much smaller than in neighboring Vietnam and Thailand, which receive up to 10 million visitors a year each.

The political crisis in Thailand has hit an industry that was already hurt from the global economic downturn.

Now there are signs that more people have begun using alternative routes, including the border crossing in Svay Rieng province, where about 31,000 people crossed in April, roughly 4,000 more than the month before.

“When Thailand became an insecure entrance, a number of tourists used the safer entrance from Vietnam,” said Mam Yoy, deputy chief of the Bavet border office in Svay Rieng province.

Ho Polend, a ticket seller for Malaysian airlines, experienced a similar uptick.

“Since there’s been a crisis in Thailand, our round trip flights are full,” she said. “Before, it was only 50 percent to 60 percent of passengers, but now it’s up to 90 percent. Our boss said we plan to increase the number of flights from one flight a day to two or three flights, based on the number of passengers.”

More incoming flights from other countries could prove problematic for the overall promotion of tourism here, however, because their prices are higher than Thai carriers, said Ang Kim Eang, president of the Cambodia Association of Tourism Agencies.

Thong Khon said an increase in direct flights could help. He expects tourism numbers to increase around 10 percent this year, still below the norm before the global economic crisis.

Cambodia currently has direct flights from Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

And Thong Khon said he expects Cambodia to benefit from an increasing number of Chinese and Indian visitors of the next 10 years.