siem reap town – The first new flight since the government launched its “open skies” policy touched down here Friday, carrying a plane full of VIPs and visions of a new era in which Cambodia’s temples will finally receive the attention they deserve.
Vietnam Airlines Flight 827 arrived from Ho Chi Minh City— with a short stop in Phnom Penh to pick up more VIPs—bearing senior government officials from Vietnam and Cambodia. Both sides have high expectations for the new route, predicting it will provide lucrative business for Cambodia and Vietnam.
“This is very important because it is of mutual benefit for both sides,” said Doan Manh Giao, Vietnam’s Minister of Cabinet. “Vietnamese tourists and foreign tourists will use this route. It will develop profits and bring socio-economic life to the people of Cambodia. And it will bring the two countries closer in cooperation and social activity.”
Some local travel agents agree. But they repeated concerns that direct flights to Siem Reap could hinder the development of tourism in other parts of the country—since many tourists may visit Cambodia only once and remain ignorant of attractions in Phnom Penh and elsewhere.
“I think tourism to Siem Reap will increase drastically,” said Katherine Nancera, marketing manager for Diethelm Travel. “For the moment Cambodia is going to remain an extension of tours in places like Thailand and Vietnam. But it is not 100 percent good for the country. Everyone will just go to Siem Reap and it may be difficult to bring them back a second time.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the newest open skies policy last month, allowing foreign carriers to bypass Phnom Penh.
Previously, Bangkok Airways was the sole foreign carrier with the right to do so, in an effort by the government to stimulate tourism in wake of the factional fighting in 1997. Opponents of the policy have long feared such a route would hinder the development of tourism to Phnom Penh. And last month’s announcement drew loud denunciations from local hoteliers and some politicians.
But proponents say it is a necessary step to develop tourism in Cambodia, bowing to the reality that many tourists in the region simply do not wish to spend two nights in Phnom Penh en route to see the famed temples of Angkor Wat and Bayon.
Bangkok Airways began operating direct flights to Siem Riep in January 1998. The airline now has five flights a day from Bangkok and Phuket to Siem Reap. The flights have had a substantial impact, with the number of travelers visiting the temples by air up by almost 100 percent, said Thong Khon, secretary of state of the Tourism Ministry.
Overall tourism in Siem Reap jumped by at least 35 percent last year, Thong Khon said.
Vietnam Airlines will begin regular service here starting Feb 16. The final number of weekly flights has not yet been decided, but officials say they will likely start with five.
Nyugen Tien Sam, director general of Vietnam’s Civil Aviation Authority, said he expects Vietnam Airlines to transport more than 10,000 passengers on the route in the first year.
As demand increases, “we believe we could carry more than 20,000 or 30,000 people a year,” he said.
For Vietnam, the route is part of a regional tourism strategy. The Vietnamese national airline also is hoping to expand into the markets of Laos, Burma and Thailand in order to “create a tourist network to the five countries” that will draw visitors from around the world through Vietnam.
Cambodia’s leaders have plans of their own.
The government is trying to work out deals with airlines in Singapore and China to fly direct to Siem Reap, Thong Khon said.
Speaking at a ceremony at Siem Reap airport, Minister of Cabinet Sok An said the Cambodian government will also in the future seek direct flights to other parts of the country, such as to Ratanakkiri to promote “eco-tourism” and to Sihanoukville to promote the beaches.
There are also plans for massive infrastructure upgrades. The government plans to build a road from the Thai border in Poipet to Siem Reap. They want to upgrade port facilities on the Tonle Sap. And the Siem Reap airport will also be expanded, Thong Khon said. Plans for an airport in Sihanoukville and other potential tourist spots are also in the works.
“We want people to be able to come to Siem Reap by air, by road, and by water,” Thong Kong said.
“But the road and the [dock facilities] are not so good. We expect tourism to grow by about 35 percent each year. But in 2003 when we have completed the infrastructure, we expect it to grow 50 percent.”