Tourism is one of Cambodia’s most vibrant industries and, despite the setback it has suffered due to the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, will continue to grow exponentially in coming years, Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth said.
“I don’t think Cambodia can go backwards,” he said.
Speaking at a conference last week announcing the ministry’s 1998-2002 report and plan for 2003, Veng Sereyvuth was pragmatic about the tourism industry’s ability to bounce back from the SARS crisis.
“I think we will get over this, but, of course, the process will be a painful one,” he said.
Although full of praise for the measures put in place to combat the spread of the disease, the minister also called for calm.
“I think it’s a total misconception,” he said, referring to the idea that flying to Asia puts tourists at risk from SARS.
Prime Minister Hun Sen seconded this in his address to the conference.
“The main issue [with SARS] is psychological,” Hun Sen said.
Despite China’s heavy SARS toll, the prime minister warmly welcomed its citizens to Cambodia.
“If Chinese people cannot go to other countries, please come to Cambodia,” he said.
Hun Sen also promised to look after foreign visitors if any fall sick on Cambodian soil.
“If someone has SARS, even if he is of another nationality, he will not be sent back to his country; he will be accepted and treated at that place as their citizen…. This is the spirit of the Asean leaders’ consensus.”
Although it has yet to report a case of SARS, Cambodia suffered from a 40 percent decrease in tourists arrivals in the first quarter of 2003, compared to last year’s figures. “It’s a serious business,” Veng Sereyvuth said.
Income generated by tourism accounted for 57.6 percent of the national budget in 2002, and, despite the current crisis, is expected to grow into a $1 billion industry by 2006, according to the report. Visitors from Japan made up the majority of tourists in the first quarter of this year, followed by US citizens, French, Koreans and British, the report says.
On a more general note, Veng Sereyvuth told the conference attendees, who included ministry representatives and hotel owners, that the tourism sector must work harder to promote Cambodia. This, he said, means lowering prices. New hotels have been springing up around the country to boost local competition, Veng Sereyvuth said. In 1998, there were 8,247 hotel rooms in Cambodia; in 2002, that number had risen to 11,426.
Conference attendees were also treated to a sneak preview of the events that will mark what remains of “Visit Cambodia Year.” They include the Cambodia Food Festival, the Cambodian Xtreme Challenge sports event, the Festival of Fireworks and the International Fashion Extravaganza.
“You want tourists to arrive and leave with sweet memories,” Veng Sereyvuth said. (Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)