Two million feet are expected to pound the ancient stones of Angkor this year in Siem Reap province, yet the great parade flying in from Bangkok must pass through one portal alone: Just one airline, Bangkok Airways, offers a direct flight to Siem Reap.
Opposition to the monopoly bubbled over Friday at the Ministry of Tourism in Phnom Penh, where representatives of travel agencies and hotels banded together and, once again, asked the Cambodian government to open the route to competition.
The government was unmoved, according to those who attended. Minister of Tourism Lay Prohas promised to set up another meeting, with Bangkok Airways, for the private-sector groups, according to James Kheng Sok, office manager of the Cambodia Hotel Association.
Bangkok Airways has had a virtual monopoly since 1997, and it will continue to do so until at least 2009, Him Sarun, Cabinet chief for the Secretariat of Civil Aviation, said in an interview Monday.
As Siem Reap has exploded as a tourist destination, business officials say the effect of the monopoly can be felt more keenly.
There are currently four Bangkok Airways flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap each day, and a total of 14 airlines use the international airports in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap for other routes.
The airline’s office in Phnom Penh referred questions about the monopoly to their Bangkok office. By Wednesday evening, the Bangkok office had not responded to e-mailed requests for comment submitted Monday.
Tourism Ministry Secretary of State Thong Khon declined comment on the monopoly, while Lay Prohas could not be reached Wednesday.
“The problem is we have more and more rooms available,” while there remains only one airline, said Didier Lamoot, general manager of the Siem Reap hotel Sofitel Royal Angkor.
The Cambodia Hotel Association—which represents 119 hotels in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville—has also demanded that the route be open to competition, according to James Kheng Sok.
Thai Airways has tried for four years to get permission to fly from Bangkok to Siem Reap, said Narinthorn Purnagupta, Cambodia’s general manager for Thai Airways.
The airline was offered two alternative routes into Siem Reap, from Phuket and Chiang Mai, but Purnagupta said he feared there would not be enough passengers to justify service.
Critics say that the monopoly has driven rates up. According to Moeung Sonn, managing director of Eurasie Travel, the price of a round trip ticket from Bangkok to Siem Reap is around $280, while a trip from Bangkok to Phnom Penh can be as low as $156 on a regular carrier.
Building air connections clearly builds tourism: The addition of new direct, low-cost flights to Siem Reap from Singapore and Malaysia increased passenger traffic from those two countries 58 and 124 percent respectively, said Lamoot. “It could be the same thing from Bangkok,” he added.
But it won’t be, at least not for a while. According to Him Sarun, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a directive in 2005 guaranteeing Bangkok Airways a virtual monopoly until 2009.
It has been that way since 1997, he added, when Hun Sen decreed that only Bangkok Airways and a national Cambodian airline would be able to fly the Bangkok-Siem Reap route. Cambodia has not had its own national carrier since December 2004.
“We don’t know the reason why, but it is known that Bangkok Airways was the only company that operated its business activity during the factional fighting on the fifth to sixth of July 1997,” Him Sarun said of the monopoly. “It was the decision of Samdech Prime Minister. We can’t discuss…this issue.”
And so, tourism professionals have learned, the only thing to do is wait.
“In one and a half years, the road from Bangkok will be completed,” Lamoot said . “By the end of next year, we’ll be five or six hours from Bangkok and everyone can come for $50 with a four-wheel drive.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)