Cambodia successfully branded itself overseas with its first-ever “Kingdom of Wonder” campaign in 2008, and has since steadily improved in the rankings to become one of the most popular destinations in Southeast Asia. But despite accolades from influential sites like TripAdvisor, which awarded Siem Reap it’s “Travelers’ Choice: Best Destination in Asia” for 2016, there is still much that Cambodia can do to diversify its marketing strategy.
Fulfilling the green potential
Industry experts all agree that huge potential lies in Cambodia’s ecotourism industry and waterways, whether it’s boat rides down the Mekong or trekking in the forests of the Northeast provinces of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri. The Ministry of Tourism has already identified ecotourism as an important policy objective, says Luu Meng, director of Thalias Hospitality Group and the co-chair of the Government-Private Sector Working Group on Tourism. “It’s already inside the [national] tourism strategy and we will ask the government to make this a priority,” he says.
A number of popular ecotourism projects have already been developed with this goal in mind, such as community-based trekking groups in the Cardamom Mountains and camping sites in Kirirom National Park. Most of these locations, however, are relatively unknown outside of Cambodia and are generally undertaken as add-ons to trips. Luu Meng encourages the private sector to work with the government to promote and develop new green destinations.
“We should work hard to support the government in protecting forested areas; this is the future of tourism. If we can go green, build beautiful resorts, build beautiful parks, and recycle, this will be the most attractive place in Asia,” Luu Meng also recommends. “A lot of places don’t have forests like Cambodia does.”
Arnaud Darc, Founder and CEO of Thalias Hospitality Group, also suggests promoting Cambodia’s biological diversity rather than just its cultural heritage to foreign tourists. “The best known attraction in Cambodia remains Angkor Wat and the Angkor Archeological Park, but Cambodian bays were inaugurated into the Most Beautiful Bays in the World Club, recognising the potential of the coastal zone,” he says. “The potential to diversify the destinations is obvious, the natural attraction zones can provide an alternative to cultural tourism, including the Tonle Sap Biodiversity area, and ecotourism zones in the northeast part of Cambodia.”
Carrol Sahaidak-Beaver, Executive Director of the Cambodia Hotel Association, says much marketing potential lies in Cambodia’s scenic rivers and lakes, and can attract wealthier customers with luxury offerings. “The boat trip between Siem Reap and Battambang is becoming more and more popular,” says Carrol. “Luxury cruises up the Tonle Sap have potential. The Mekong Corridor offers multiple tourism destinations in addition to river cruises through the region.”
Keeping up with the neighbours
In another consensus, industry professionals say the Ministry of Tourism must do more to market Cambodia outside the Kingdom’s borders, rather than rely on airlines, hotels, and websites as it has historically done.
“The government and the Ministry of Tourism will need to be more proactive to compete with the more affluent neighbours. Cambodia is competing with countries like Malaysia and Thailand to attract visitors and these countries have vast tourism budgets and a global presence,” says Nick Ray, Company Advisor at Hanuman Travel, which has operated in Cambodia since 1990. “Malaysia Tourism has a London office on Trafalgar Square which is significantly larger than the entire Cambodian Embassy in London, so it is not really a level playing field.”
Sahaidak-Beaver says that the Ministry is carefully targeting international tourism trade shows, including the Cambodia Travel Mart, an event that will be held August this year. Countries as diverse as Barbados and China operate booths alongside airlines and international hotel chains. These shows are attended by industry professionals, insiders, and tastemakers who will bring information back to their home country and make recommendations to clients and customers.
Reaching out to more tourists from overseas, though, is easier if the infrastructure is also in place to help them get to Cambodia easily, she advises. “Attracting foreign tourists is linked to opening opportunities for direct flights and reviewing the visa restraints on tourists. Both have been identified as having a direct effect on tourism numbers.”
Cambodia Tourism Federation
The Kingdom took a step forward with the creation of the Cambodia Tourism Federation (CTF) last year, which unites the work of the government with that of the Cambodia Restaurant Association, the Cambodia Hotel Association, the Pacific Asia Travel Association – Cambodia Chapter, Cambodia Airports, the European Chamber of Commerce, the International Business Chamber in Cambodia, the Cambodian Chef Federation, the Cambodia Chef’s Association, the American Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia and the Cambodia Automobile Industry Federation.
The CTF will be able to coordinate activities better, says Thalias’s Darc. “As a representative body of the tourism industry, the CTF will play a leading role in assisting the Royal Government of Cambodia and the Ministry of Tourism in promoting Cambodia as a destination by participating in events overseas,” he says.
A centralised website or database on Cambodia would also be useful, says Sahaidak-Beaver, as tourists can become overwhelmed by the amount of information scattered around the internet, she says. “The first step is centralising the information on current alternative destination opportunities to inform prospective tourists of the options available,” she says. “Each day something is added to the list, but we have to get this information out internationally so travel agents can offer more than temples and beaches to the destination experience.”