Last year, Angkor Wat was named Trip Advisor’s “best landmark in the world” in their annual Traveller’s Choice awards, beating other world-renowned sites such as Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, and the Eiffel Tower. While the award may come as no surprise to those who have visited the World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat’s award also reflects the growing popularity of Cambodia as a tourist destination in its own right, where a decade ago it was often merely an “add-on” to a trip to Thailand or Vietnam.
Tourism also accounts for nearly a third of Cambodia’s GDP, bringing $5 billion to the economy and over 4.5 million visitors a year. Experts agree there is still significant room to grow, and the industry is looking to develop an strategy to manage sustainable tourism development from 2016-2020. The Ministry of Tourism is also drafting a more sophisticated approach to market the country to visitors beyond its staple of regional visitors and backpackers from Northeast Asia, Europe, Australia, and the Americas.
Cambodia shouldn’t rest on its laurels, though, say industry experts. In order to maintain its growth, the tourism industry needs to market alternative tourist destinations. Promoting Cambodia abroad to targeted countries, assessing and meeting the needs of international tourists, and keeping prices competitive will all ensure that the industry continues to thrive.
“Cambodia is a mysterious country for many tourists; this definitely creates a desire for many people to see a place that is largely unexplored by much of the world,” says Amir Azimi, co-founder of the Green Leaf Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap. “The government can always reinforce this image through proper marketing, commercials, Internet blogging and social media. Relying only on hotels and tour companies to do the marketing for them is not a great option.”
Keeping tourists in the Kingdom
At the centre of Cambodia’s strategy is the goal of keeping tourists in the country for longer. The Ministry of Tourism found that in 2015 most visitors stayed an average 6.8 days in Cambodia, according to its annual report.
Keeping tourists in Cambodia for longer will require marketing the country to visitors beyond Angkor Wat in the north and the Choueng Ek Genocidal Centre and Toul Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, says Luu Meng, director of Thalias and Co-chair of the Government Private Sector Working Group on Tourism.
Marketing Cambodia’s beaches and waterfront destinations like Kampot is an easy way to keep visitors for 3 to 4 extra days, says Luu Meng. “[We have] seven beach areas that are very important for us to highlight.” These include Kep, Kampot, Sihanoukville, Koh Kong, Koh Rong, Koh Rong Sanloem, and Koh Tonsay (also known as Rabbit Island).
Meng says it is also important to consider how to get tourists to return to Cambodia after their first trip here. “If we show visitors what we are capable of, through outstanding hospitality and tourism service, they will return,” he says.
With Cambodia’s increasing popularity amongst Asian tourists, and more direct flights from cities such as Hong Kong, Hanoi, and Singapore, return visitors are a growing demographic of tourists. Vietnam, China, Laos, Korea and Thailand sent the most visitors to Cambodia last year, and their close proximity suggests they have the potential to be return visitors.
Takenori Ueda, managing director of Tama Home (Cambodia) Ltd, which owns Tama Hotel and the restaurant D22 in Phnom Penh Tower, says upgrading the country’s airports, particularly in Siem Reap could go a long way in promoting tourism. He also suggested the airlines work together better to “coordinate direct flights” so that tourists can easily move between the key hubs of Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and Siem Reap.
Catering to Chinese tourists
China has catapulted to become the world’s largest demographic of international tourists, with Chinese tourists spending $229 billion overseas in 2015, according to German market research group Gfk. Of the 109 million tourists China sent abroad last year, 694,712 visited Cambodia, with an additional 92,314 from Taiwan.
Targeting these tourists should be a policy objective for the country’s tourism industry, says Azimi. “There is no question that the Chinese are the fastest growing demographic in the world for tourism and one of the largest wealth groups. It would be key to market to this demographic,” he says.
“The government should research the Chinese culture to see what their expectations are and work to offer tourist attractions and other ventures that would bring in larger groups of Chinese. Educating hotels and tour services on what exactly the Chinese market wants will be a big help in order to keep them satisfied and coming back.”
Quality and value of stay
Despite Cambodia’s many attractions for international tourists, it can still fall short when it comes to the details. Tourists are often turned off by poorly trained hospitality staff as well as inadequate hygiene and cleanliness at hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions. Given the government’s limited capacity to deal with these problems, private companies should take the initiative, says Azimi.
“Garbage, polluted water and recycling programmes are things the Cambodian government needs to look into solving in partnership with private companies in order to attract more tourism,” he adds. “Cambodia is a beautiful country, however that is often masked by piles of rotting garbage outside of temples or luxury resorts, and polluted waterways that create offensive smells. Taking care of these problems would create a better version of Cambodia and increase tourism and revenue.”
Cambodia is succeeding, however, at bringing tourists value for their money thanks to the large number of hotels and competitive transportation sector, says Luu Meng. This is important for regional visitors, and keeps tourists in the country for longer.
“In terms of hospitality and tourism, we are very good value for money. You just go to Koh Kong and you see how much it costs you to stay there one night. Compare that to Laos, Vietnam, or Thailand, and you’ll be surprised. Customers are very happy with our competitive rates,” he says.