siem reap town – Foreign tourists staying at the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor might be willing to pay hundreds of dollars a night for a room. But they have not been ea-ger to spend $18 on a ticket for the much-touted Angkor-Gyeongju World Culture Expo.
Pat Sambo, chief concierge at the prestigious Grand Hotel, smiled when asked last week if he had been selling tickets. Chuckling, he pulled out four pristine books of tickets from a drawer.
Though the expo—a joint venture between Cambodia and the South Korean province of Gyeongsangbuk-do—has cost an estimated $6 million, Pat Sambo has not sold a single ticket.
“I’ve tried to introduce the expo to most of the guests, but they say they are not interested,” he said.
The Cambodian government invested $2 million in the event, said Song Tong Hap, deputy director of the finance department at the Cambodian Tourism Ministry.
But visitors and vendors have questioned if it was a wise use of money.
Since it opened with much fanfare and publicity Nov 21 on the scrub-brush outskirts of Siem Reap town, the expo has drawn tens of thousands of Cambodians at the cut-price rate of $2 for two tickets. The expo, however, has not attracted the $20-dollar-a-ticket foreign tourists that officials had planned for.
And the limited revenues being generated on the sales of tickets to Cambodians is being channeled back into maintaining the expo’s daily operations, said Hang Soth, an event organizer and director-general of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
Initially, Cambodian visitors had to pay $3 to gain entry, and foreigners $20. Now, in a bid to attract crowds, the ticket price for Cambodians has been reduced to $2 for two people. Tickets for foreigners have dropped to $18 when purchased at the gate, and one ticket will now admit three people.
Organizers have also gone the extra steps of reducing the price to $13 for South Koreans—allowing access for three—and even allowing local businesses to sell foreigner tickets for $6 a piece.
Sitting glum-faced opposite his deserted souvenir booth, local expo vendor Som Bona, 40, said he expects to lose at least half of the $750 he paid to set up his stand for the 50-day expo.
Heeding the pre-expo promotional pitch, Som Bona stocked up on handmade Cambodian items targeted to foreign tourists.
“The crowd is maybe one percent foreigners,” he said. “I expected to sell to foreigners, but now I try to sell to Cambodians at lower prices because they can’t afford anything otherwise,” he said.
Vendors said the throngs of Cambodian visitors are reluctant to spend on food or souvenirs after already relieving their wallets of $2 to enter the expo.
Pom Vutheadarith, a 23-year-old food stall vendor, said foreigners had little reason to visit the expo as they can experience the same attractions—apsara dancing, Khmer food and plays—in nearby Siem Reap town.
But organizers remain confident that despite the lack of foreign tourists they will reach the goal of bringing at least 300,000 visitors to the expo. Currently, the expo gets about 5,000 visitors on weekdays and 12,000 on weekend days, officials said.
Thong Khon, secretary of state at the Tourism Ministry, said the expo was running smoothly and the visitor numbers were high.
“I’m very happy—so many people come,” he said.
Liv Loeun, who traveled with her family from Banteay Meanchey province to attend the expo, was also impressed.
“I am 83 already and in my life I have never seen this sort of thing before,” she said. “I am very happy.”
Cambodia and Korea each have a small pavilion to showcase their ancient cultures. Cambodian visitors said they were particularly fond of two 15-minute 3-D films presenting myth-filled takes on Angkorian and Korean history. Also highly regarded is the Angkorian-style procession featuring actors dressed in period costume that caps each evening of the expo.
Last week, organizers began introducing more events, like Khmer kickboxing, to bring in bigger crowds, but officials fear this won’t be enough.
Song Tong Hap, however, said that more fundamental issues needed to be addressed, such as letting visitors know what the $6-million expo is all about.
“The problem is a lack of marketing strategy to let [foreign tourists] know exactly what the events are about,” he said.
Hang Soth conceded Cambodia will probably not recoup its $2-million investment in the expo. But profit was never the point, he said.
“We will lose money. But we will benefit by showing the international community how peaceful Cambodia is.”
But the expo may not have even achieved that.
Several foreign tourists visiting Angkor said they knew little or nothing about the expo going on just up the road.
David Ross from Britain said the very notion of an “expo” had limited appeal.
“I always associate expos with professionals or trade groups,” he said.
“As a thing for the general public it doesn’t register.”