Today marks one year, five months and 29 days since Cambodia’s airport operator Societe Concessionnaire des Aeroports declared that the airport in Preah Sihanouk province had reached international standards. But since that day in April 2009, the airport has been void of scheduled flights.
Those in the airline industry say that it is the responsibility of Cambodia Angkor Air, the national carrier, to start flights to Preah Sihanouk International Airport, as a decision to do so falls in line with the government’s policy to diversify the tourism industry.
In November 2008, just months before the airport in Preah Sihanouk province earned international status, SCA said that it had entered into talks with several unnamed airlines looking to start flights to the coastal destination.
SCA officials reiterated this yesterday, and admitted they did not expect to wait so long to attract a carrier to the airport.
Meanwhile it is still uncertain why CAA has not started flights to the coast, even as it adds seven weekly flights between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap during the high tourist season.
“We strongly believe that the seaside of Cambodia is a top destination for tourists. It is not only my opinion,” said SCA’s Chief Executive Nicolas Deviller at a news conference announcing the new flight schedule for Oct 31 to March 26.
“We really estimate that the potential for not only Sihanoukville but the seaside, the coastal zone of Cambodia, is very huge,” he added.
Indeed, SCA can be excused for getting impatient. In order to attract carriers to the airport, SCA has even offered free airport services to airlines willing to give the destination a try.
Mr Deviller said that SCA was working closely with the government regarding the matter, and had also started talks with several other airlines about scheduling flights from Preah Sihanouk province. Though he declined to reveal the identities of those companies for commercial reasons.
“We are discussing with a few of them. It takes time,” he said.
Kroch Vandy, chief of flight movements control at the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation, said that he was aware that CAA had plans to operate a flight from Preah Sihanouk province, though he was unaware of any timeframe on the matter.
“The airline will plan to operate Sihanoukville,” he said, adding, “So far I did not receive any update from the airline.”
The reality for SCA, however, is that it is happy for anyone to schedule flights from Preah Sihanouk province.
Mr Deviller noted that out of the 800,000 tourists that visit Siem Reap every year, half of them continue their trip in the region to a beach in Thailand, Indonesia or Vietnam, proof that a market for flights to Preah Sihanouk province exists.
CAA, however, has repeatedly stated that it is in no rush to start flights from Preah Sihanouk province until it becomes economically feasible.
“The efforts need to be taken by the local carriers,” said Abdul Karin, area manager for Malaysia Airlines in Cambodia. “They have to take the lead basically.”
For international airlines bringing foreigners to Cambodia, a destination like Preah Sihanouk City is still largely unknown, especially when compared to beachfront destinations such as Phuket and Bali.
“The product itself is not known to many countries,” Mr Karin said.
Experts say that in the same way that Thailand and Vietnam based their tourism industries around coastal areas, Cambodia should also classify its beaches as essential for the development of its own tourism industry.
“All the travel agents are looking for when [the airport] becomes operational,” said Mohan Gunti, an advisor to the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents. “From an agent’s point of view, it can definitely help them to bundle up” their holiday packages.