You can almost smell the fresh paint from here to Siem Reap, as Cambodia’s luxury hotels and their smaller cousins gear up for the busiest times in recent memory.
With three international conferences bringing thousands of VIPs to Phnom Penh, and with more than a million tourists anticipated for 2003, hotels are starching their sheets, dusting the walls and generally getting their acts together.
“We are very busy,” said Sam Heang, president of the Siem Reap Hotel Association. Association members are having meetings that can run as long as three or four days at a time, as they prepare for a slew of visitors coming for Phnom Penh’s Asean and Greater Mekong Subregion summits scheduled for November and the Asean Tourism Forum, scheduled for January.
In Phnom Penh, hotels are sprucing up for the arrival of at least 200 super-VIPs, with leaders from China, Japan, India and South Korea coming to town to meet with leaders from all the Asean nations.
At the Hotel Cambodiana, workers have repainted the facade and are refurbishing 24 suites and all of the deluxe rooms at the hotel, said Khuon Frandara, a spokeswoman for the hotel.
Nearby, the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel has undergone similar improvements. They’ve even ordered high tech safe deposit boxes in anticipation of the Asean Summit, said Rachael Suwanapadhama, director of sales at the hotel.
Most of the thousands of guests will likely also visit the temples at Angkor Wat, so hotels in Siem Reap are putting on their best faces, too, industry officials say.
The upcoming conferences in Phnom Penh means one thing for the hotel industry here: It’s Cambodia’s time to shine.
“This is a top chance for the hotel industry to sell the tourist package,” said Meas Chhay, president of the Phnom Penh Hotel Association and owner of the Goldiana Hotel. “So, rooms, services have to be professional.”
The Goldiana is booked solid through November and December, he said.
The onslaught of guests for the November summits will be followed by the week-long Asean Tourism Forum. Cambodia has designated 2003 it’s year of tourism, and the forum will be a chance for hundreds of businesses to showcase their tourism potential to prospective tourists and members of the press, who will carry their impressions of Cambodia during the conference back to their home countries.
For hotels and other tourism-related businesses, the most important part of the forum will be the chance to construct a booth at the National Cultural Center.
The center, near the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Bassac and Tonle Sap rivers in Chamkar Mon district, will house about 400 stalls, which will cost an average of $1,500 for three days.
One of the reasons the 47 hotel association members in Seam Reap are having so many long meetings is to decide whether individual hotels should pay for their own booths, or whether the association will buy one for itself, Sam Heang said.
Smaller hotel owners are worried they can’t afford the booth space, he said.
The government is going to spend about a half million dollars to prepare the National Cultural Center for the booth exhibition, Ministry of Tourism Director-General Kousoum Sareouth said.
The government and private businesses will likely be spending a lot of money to promote tourism in 2003. And all that hard work will only lead to more work, lifting Cambodia’s tourism numbers to more than 1 million in 2003. (By 2010, they expect 3.5 million people to travel to Cambodia.)
The Ministry of Tourism already expects about 800,000 visitors to come to Cambodia this year.
And while the million-man mark means a boom for the hotel sector, it comes as no surprise to anyone in the industry. Cambodia’s tourism industry has been steadily climbing, and over the years, the hotel industry has followed suit.
Industry officials said this week that the pace of hotel development will be able to match the number of visitors.
Other observers have said that as the number of visitors and hotels climb, Siem Reap will have to deal with increased impact on the environment. And the city is already beginning a clean-up of the Sen River, which runs through the center of town.
The government is taking responsibility for environmental protection, Kuosoum Sareouth said, “not because of the tourism industry is careless on environmental issues, but because our key [priority] is sustainable tourism development.”
In less than 10 years, since Untac soldiers left their mission in Cambodia, the number of hotels has increased 177 percent, according to Tourism Ministry figures. The total rooms available in Cambodia had nearly reached 11,000 at the end of 2001, with more hotels under construction. Siem Reap alone had 2,480 rooms at the end of 2001. Phnom Penh had 5,381.
That growth will have to continue, with the demand for rooms by 2010 expected to reach 74,000.
That will mean the creation of around 74,000 jobs, since the industry average for employment is usually equal to a person a room. The hotel industry currently employs around 10,000 people.
Hotel officials said this week that Cambodia will not only be getting more and more hotels, but they will also get better and better ones.
Currently there are only six five-star hotels in Cambodia, three in Phnom Penh, three in Siem Reap. These hotels are generally considered five-star, but Cambodian tourism officials are in the process of drafting an official system for star ratings.
In Siem Reap, there has been some interest already shown by several other US five-star hotel companies, Kousoum Sareouth said.
“I think from now through the next ten years, there must be a lot of investors interested to invest in the hotel industry,” he said.
So the upcoming conferences and Cambodia’s year of tourism are only the beginning. Improvements in infrastructure and increased investment in tourism businesses will spread tourism throughout the provinces.
Already, there are three boat companies running trips to and from Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Kratie and Stung Treng.
Last week, Tourism Minister Veng Sereyvuth led a delegation of ministry officials from Phnom Penh to the Lao border—by boat—to explore more tourism opportunities. The idea is to open up more pathways to Laos so that visitors to Cambodia don’t just fly from one Southeast Asian site to another.
(Additional reporting by Brian Calvert)