The fear of severe acute respiratory syndrome has hit the Cambodian tourism industry hard, with millions of dollars lost and workers in the service industry facing mass layoffs, tourism officials said Monday.
“The effect of SARS throughout the region and in Cambodia is quite dramatic,” Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth said. “The terrorist attacks [in the US and Bali] and the war in Iraq were bad, but SARS is much worse.”
The number of foreign visitors to Cambodia dropped by 22 percent in March 2003 compared with the same period last year. The entire first quarter of the year saw a dramatic decrease in tourism, from more than 77,000 visitors in the first quarter 2002 to just more than 60,000 between January and March this year.
With the drop in tourism unfortunately follows a decline in the number of service industry jobs in Cambodia, Veng Sereyvuth said.
“We are going to see many people laid off—thousands will lose their jobs and will see their personal economies dried up,” he said. “This is an extremely big hit against our country.”
SARS’ impact on Cambodia’s tourism industry has already cut into the country’s much-needed revenue as well. The government has missed out on an estimated $8.1 million in tourism revenue for the first quarter of this year, Ministry of Tourism Secretary of State Nuth Nin Doeurn said Monday.
Although Cambodia has had no confirmed cases of SARS, many Asean countries have had numerous cases. Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines all have SARS cases, with the World Health Organization stating last week that only Vietnam has contained its spread.
While the outlook for the region’s tourism industry looks bleak, Veng Sereyvuth gave assurances that Cambodia and other Asean countries will soon bounce back.
“We are almost over with this scare,” he said. “Through a public awareness campaign, we can inform people that there are no SARS cases in Cambodia, and soon tourism will increase.”
In the meantime, industries in Cambodia and beyond continue to feel the impact of SARS. Dragonair, for example, typically operated at least four flights from Phnom Penh to Hong Kong before the SARS threat hit the region. However, on May 1 Dragonair reduced its number of flights to two a week, the airline’s Phnom Penh manager, Alfred Sung, said Monday.
Sung estimated their regional flights have decreased 40 percent to 50 percent in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap hotels are also suffering losses, with some of the major four-star hotels such as the Cambodiana experiencing low occupancy rates, said one Cambodiana employee who has monitored the situation closely.
The Cambodiana had between a 20 percent to 25 percent occupancy rate in March and about a 32 percent average rate during April, the employee said. Most hotels in Phnom Penh, the employee said, are at about 20 percent occupancy but no major hotels have been closed.
“Some of the hotels close one or two floors of their hotels, but none are closed,” the employee said.