New Airport Sought for Siem Reap by Tourism Officials

The National Tourism Author­ity wants a new airport to be built in Siem Reap while still urging the existing airport be upgraded immediately—a plan criticized as wasteful of donor money.

The authority, a newly-created government wing in charge of developing tourism policy, recommended at a meeting last week that a new international airport be constructed within eight years, according to a statement. The group, chaired by Cabinet Minis­ter Sok An, also established a joint commission to develop the plan. Two companies—US-based airport developer Parsons-Uniprod and Bangkok Airways—already have been appointed to study the feasibility of the plan, according to Civil Aviation Authority officials.

“The government has had a principle to have a new airport in Siem Reap,” said So Mara, secretary-general for the National Tourism Authority. “The existing airport cannot support the in­creasing number of tourists….

It’s good to start thinking [about] the plan before it gets too late.”

But some criticize the government, saying it would be wasting the millions of dollars currently being poured into the existing

airport to elevate it to international standards.

A $15 million loan from the Asian Development Bank is funding the bulk of an extensive $17.6 million upgrade at the existing Siem Reap airport. The $9 million first phase was recently completed and a $5 million terminal renovation is scheduled to start soon.

“Cambodia must maximize every dollar we receive from donors,” said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “We must have a long-term development plan which should be coherent, strategic and comprehensive. It should not be on an ad hoc basis….Otherwise, we’re losing money, losing time and losing trust from donors.”

The government already is in a bit of hot water with the ADB, after unilaterally handing over Siem Reap airport management to French-led Societe Concess­ionnaire l’Aeroport. The deal guarantees SCA more than 90 percent of the revenue and 70 percent of the airport operating profits while the government has responsibility to repay the ADB loan. The ADB last month criticized the government for not consulting with the bank first on the changes in airport operation and warned the loan to the airport project might be suspended.

ADB has OK’d the legality of the deal, but an ADB mission is scheduled to visit Cambodia next month to review the commercial aspects of the deal, according to ADB’s country representative Urooj Malik.

Said Kao Kim Hourn of the government’s handling of that deal: “This is the same bad decision. They are making one mistake after another.”

The tourism authority last week urged the Civil Aviation Authority and SCA to strengthen the existing airport in Siem Reap to accommodate “dramatically increasing” tourists from overseas, according to the statement. The authority urged the construction of a temporary waiting room by the end of this year and a revision of the ADB-funded passenger terminal renovation plan in order to accommodate more international passengers.

Tourism officials this week defended the plans to build both a new airport and upgrade the existing one.

“The policy of the Ministry of Tourism is everything has to be upgraded to international standards,” said Thong Khon, secretary of state for the Tourism Minister. “Temporarily, we need to upgrade the existing airport to accommodate an increasing number of tourists.”

According to the Ministry of Tourism, tourist arrivals have jumped nearly 50 percent in the first quarter of 2000 from the previous year, due to the government’s “open-skies” allowing direct international flights to Siem Reap. So Mara said the new airport also is a must to preserve the nearby Angkor temples.

“The [existing] airport is too close to Angkor temples. It would affect the preservation of temples,” said So Mara. “A new international airport should be 30-40 kilometers away from the temples.”

Philippe Rose, commercial director of SCA, characterized the plan for a new international airport in Siem Reap as “a challenge.”

“We have to make [the existing] airport well developed and suitable,” he said. But he wouldn’t elaborate. Officials said no decisions have been made on the future of the existing airport should a new one be built.

But Kao Sapaul, undersecretary of state for the Civil Aviation and member of the authority, said domestic and international flights should not be separated to two airports because it would be inconvenient for tourists.

“I don’t know about the government opinion about it, but the old one could be abandoned when the new one is open,” Kao Sapaul said.

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