Cambodian carrier Tonle Sap Airlines plans to start daily scheduled flights between Siem Reap City and Sihanoukville by August, a move that national carrier Cambodia Angkor Air has not yet made despite longstanding calls from the private sector to do so.
News of a scheduled flight to the coast—which tourism experts say is essential for the diversification and growth of the country’s tourism industry—came as participants in a tourism conference in Phnom Penh publicly criticized the national carrier and the government for putting profitability before the national interest.
Although the airport just outside Sihanoukville was deemed to be international standard in mid-2009, no airline has yet plucked up the courage to start scheduled flights.
An official from CAA yesterday said that shareholders in the national carrier, which is 49 percent owned by Vietnam Airlines, thought the route lacked the necessary commercial demand.
Bill Chen, chief financial officer for Tonle Sap Airlines, said yesterday that Tonle Sap Airlines would start operating flights once or twice daily to Sihanoukville as soon as the company organized a lease agreement for an ATR 72 aircraft.
“We are waiting for an ATR to come, probably in July or August,” he said. “We will try to operate maybe one or two times a day. After we receive the aircraft, we will confirm the schedule.”
Mr Chen added that Tonle Sap Airlines had only been granted an air operation certificate in Cambodia on the condition that it begin flying to Sihanoukville International Airport. The company started commercial flights between Siem Reap City and Taipei in January.
Nicolas Deviller, CEO of Societe Concessionnaire des Aeroports, the national airport operator, said a number of firms were interested in commencing flights to Sihanoukville, but declined to elaborate further.
“In the next few months I think we’re going to start to see things moving,” he said. “Today there are several parties who are interested” in flying to Sihanoukville.
Though flights will soon be reaching Sihanoukville, many at the conference expressed disappointment with the national carrier for not doing its part to bring more affluent holidaymakers to Cambodia’s main coastal location.
“We welcome the operator for thinking more of the national [interest] rather than pure shareholder benefit,” said Sok Siphana, an adviser to the government and practicing lawyer, while speaking to an audience of international investors, airlines and government officials at a tourism conference in Phnom Penh yesterday.
Mr Siphana’s comments were echoed by a number of related questions from members of the private sector attending the conference co-organized by SCA, Air France and the French construction company Vinci.
Both the national carrier and the government yesterday showed no sign that CAA would start regular flights to Sihanoukville, continuing to argue that there was not enough customer demand to warrant commencing a route there.
“We have been doing a full study before and our partner, especially the investors, give us the comment that if we operate right now it would at a loss,” Vann Chan Ty, deputy financial manager for CAA, told the conference.
Hang Chuon Naron, secretary of state at the Ministry of Finance, agreed with Mr Chan Ty and argued that the national carrier should only start flights to Sihanoukville once the private sector develops sufficient infrastructure to start bringing more tourists.
“We need the flight to work first on the demand side,” he said. “We need a carrier with a strategy.”
But according to a January report written by Frederick Thomas, an economist at the International Finance Corporation, 87 percent of tour operators here consider the beaches and scenery of Sihanoukville a “significant strength” and all agree “there is an urgent need for the Sihanoukville International Airport to be functional.”
Through analyzing the number of tourists currently coming to Cambodia, the report showed that the numbers of tourists visiting both Siem Reap and Sihanoukville during their stay in Cambodia justifies starting regular flights between the two destinations.
“The fact that resort developers have currently no other choices than to operate charter flights from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville is not a right signal to send overseas to international tour operators and travel agencies,” the report said.
The report said that out of the more than 150,000 international tourists visiting Sihanoukville every year, 33.2 percent were likely to go to Siem Reap as well. It also said that the number of tourists per week flying between Sihanoukville and Siem Reap would likely oscillate between 161 and 319.
Samork Sreng, commercial director of SCA, said that $30 million has already been invested in the Sihanoukville airport. The first airline to start operating scheduled flights to Sihanoukville would have to pay no airport fees for the first year of operations, he added.