Cambodia’s tourism industry, like others worldwide, suffered a sharp drop in the first weeks after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the US.
But officials say they are already drawing up plans for a new three-country package, to be called the Emerald Triangle tour, aimed at boosting visits to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.
Thong Khon, secretary of state for the Ministry of Tourism, said officials also want to develop the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng as a tourist attraction, in the hopes people will want to see the house where Pol Pot lived and the location where he died.
Sathol Miyura, whose Apex Tours caters mainly to Japanese visitors, thinks stressing the Khmer Rouge angle is an excellent idea.
“Japanese tourists will really want to see [these] and learn about living conditions under the Khmer Rouge,” he said.
He also suggested preserving the houses where Ta Mok and other leaders lived “for tourists to see.”
Although it’s been only two months since the US terrorist attacks, world tourism is already beginning to bounce back, according to reports from the World Tourism Organization’s recent meetings in Japan and South Korea.
While US residents remain hesitant to travel—and people from other countries aren’t eager to visit the US—that could turn out to be good news for countries like Cambodia.
“Naturally, people would be reluctant to go to the US,” Isao Matsuzawa of the Japan Association of Travel Agents told the Associated Press. “We just have to hope they would choose other destinations—for instance, Southeast Asia—instead of not going anywhere at all.”
According to the WTO, US citizens are the world’s biggest-spending tourists. They spent $60.1 billion in 1999, followed by Germans ($48.2 billion) and Japanese ($32.8 billion).
And while experts expect that tourism growth will slow this year, they note that historically, it bounces back quickly. Tourism revenues have not declined in a single year since the end of World War II, WTO secretary-general Francesco Frangialli told delegates.
Hoteliers, restaurateurs and motorcycle taxi drivers in Siem Reap said last week that, after an initial drop right after the terrorist attacks, business has been picking up recently.
Regional tourism officials are eager to attract wealthy Asian tourists who may be skipping Broadway or Disney World this year in favor of Pacific Rim attractions.
And while the major temples of the Angkorian archeological park can handle visitors already, Cambodian officials are planning ahead to ease border crossings, develop more temples as destinations, and better train tour guides.
Prime Minister Hun Sen will talk about the Emerald Triangle development plans at next year’s Asean summit, Ministry of Tourism official Thong Khon said.
Other plans include opening a new border crossing between Chong Srangam, Thailand, and Anlong Veng, so tourists can more easily visit former Khmer Rouge strongholds, Thong Khon said. Improvements are also in the works for existing crossings at Poipet and Koh Kong on the Thai border and Bavet on the Vietnam border.
“We plan to open as many border [crossings] as possible,” he said. The government hopes to encourage visits to beautiful but previously less-accessible temples such as Preah Vihear and Koh Ker.
Other areas with high ecotourism potential include the section of the Mekong River that flows from Ubon Ratchathani Champasak province in Laos to Stung Treng and Kratie provinces in Cambodia, home to rare Irriwaddy freshwater dolphins.
Officials are also planning better training for tour guides. Thong Khon says about 600 of the country’s 1,000 guides work in the Siem Reap area, but only about half are registered.
“We need all of them to be registered and licensed,” he said, noting wealthy tourists demand good service. Currently, about 10 percent of guides speak Japanese; a handful speak Chinese or French. Most speak English.
The government is eager to hire more trilingual guides, Thong Khon said.
Sathol Miyura of Apex Tours says language isn’t all they need. His Japanese customers complain that Cambodian guides don’t have much general knowledge.
“My clients are not interested only in historic details about the Angkor temples,” he said. “They also want to know things like, what is going on in Cambodian politics? What percentage of Cambodian children go to school? How many people have safe drinking water? What are average living conditions?”
In his experience, Sathol Miyura said, four out of five Cambodian guides can’t answer such questions.
“They are boring the tourists,” he said. “What the guides are telling them [about the temples], the visitors have already read in books.”
Tes Chhaya, a Siem Reap tour guide, said guides do their best to answer questions.
“They always ask us about the security situation in Siem Reap. We always answer about the former Khmer Rouge fighting, and the armed forces before 1997,” he said. “They are interested if we talk about how people lived during the Pol Pot regime….We answer based on what we have seen with our own eyes.”
(Additional reporting by Jody McPhillips)