As the tourism high season begins, the government and private sector are increasing pressure on national carrier Cambodia Angkor Air to extend regular flights to Preah Sihanouk City, considered a vital part of the country’s tourism growth strategy.
Angkor Air, which is operated by Vietnam Airlines, launched more than a year ago with plans to service the country domestically. But even with an airport completed in Cambodia’s main seaside city, the airline has so far laid no public plans for flights there.
And with visits to the beach considered a must for tourism markets regionally, tourism experts say a lack of flights to Preah Sihanouk is holding back a pillar of economic development.
“We asked them to start as soon as possible, no later than January,” Tourism Minister Thong Khon said yesterday about attempts to secure regular flights. “Our policy is to push them.”
He said that the government and private sector discussed the topic last month at a tourism working group, but that Angkor Air had revealed no plans, only committing to “do their best.”
The economic benefits of more tourism within the country are clear, Mr Khon said, adding that the ministry wants the airline to start with twice-weekly flights between Siem Reap and Preah Sihanouk.
But even with pleas from the tourism sector, Quang Dinh, an assistant to Angkor Air’s CEO, said Preah Sihanouk did not draw enough tourists to justify the flights and the company therefore had no immediate plans to fly to Preah Sihanouk.
“We are businessmen. We have to consider where we can get profit,” he said, acknowledging the high level of pressure from the government and private sector.
“We receive pressure, and we are still working with them.” The airline currently has regular flights between three cities: Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City.
Luu Meng, president of the Cambodian Hotel Association, said that, though many visitors may go to Siem Reap, they often preferred to fly to Vietnamese or Thai beaches than to take a 10-hour bus ride to Cambodia’s coast.
“Sihanoukville destination is a big opportunity to increase the length of stay of tourists in Cambodia,” he said. “We don’t have a proper airline to fly there…. What [tourists] do in Cambodia is they go to the neighbor country. Cambodia loses a lot.”
Still, even with the lack of flights to the coast, tourism is still growing in Cambodia. In the first eight months of the year, visitor arrivals grew nearly 10 percent over the same period last year.
With the onset of the high season, an opportunity for a strong demand for flights is nearing, said Ho Vandy, co-chair of the government-private sector working group on tourism, who expressed frustration at the lack of even a plan from Angkor Air to fly to Preah Sihanouk.
“They must come up with a master plan. They have nothing to show us, they have nothing to give,” he said. “If we don’t take action now, when will it be? We try to request them.”
He acknowledged that initially the flights would operate at a loss, as businesses often do when they begin, but said business would certainly pick up.
“It is urgent need from our private sector, mostly from the travel agents and the hoteliers.”
Mark Lind, general manager of Sokha Hotels & Resorts, said that Preah Sihanouk’s beaches and islands off the coast were excellent seaside destinations but lacked infrastructure in the form of restaurants, roads and shops.
“From an infrastructure point of view, it’s probably not ready for international markets quite yet,” he said. “Once the tourists come, the infrastructure will come and it will change very quickly.”
But he called it a chicken-and-egg problem: Preah Sihanouk needs flights to encourage investment in infrastructure.
“It will happen as soon as we get scheduled flights to Sihanoukville. It won’t happen over night,” he said.