Plan to Rehabilitate Domestic Airports Could Prove Risky

Cambodia’s national airport operator is currently studying five dormant domestic airstrips that the government has said could soon be rehabilitated and used to promote tourism in some of the most remote parts of Cambodia.

But tourism experts and others in the aviation industry are skeptical that destinations such as Stung Treng and Preah Vihear can attract the numbers needed to sustain a domestic flight industry.

Cambodia Airports, which operates the country’s three international airports, said last week that it has financed a study of five unused domestic airstrips located in Battambang, Koh Kong, Preah Vihear, Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng provinces. The hope is to take some of the most attractive areas in the country and open them up to the growing numbers of visitors entering Cambodia.

“Most of them [tourists] need to see another destination, another area in Cambodia,” said Ho Vandy, co-chair of the state-private working group on tourism policy, adding that while tourism numbers are increasing, the majority of visitors come to Cambodia for a limited number of days and only visit the Angkor temple complex.

“That’s why they are looking to rebuild” the airports, he said.

Regular commercial flights to Battambang, Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng—offered by the local carriers Royal Air Cambodge, PMT and President Airlines—stopped operating in the early- to mid-2000s as the country’s highway system improved, which until then had been in a dire state following years of civil war.

But with the road network now rapidly improving, and bus travel between provinces possible in a matter of hours, aviation and tourism experts question whether the new airports will be as successful as they once were.

“I don’t think [Cambodian tourists] will fly to these destinations,” said Chan Sotheak, sales manager at Helistar Cambodia, which operates charter flights to many of the country’s provinces, catering chiefly to wealthy investors who live in Phnom Penh and pay between $4,000 to $5,000 for a round-trip flight to the remote projects they oversee.

Mr. Sotheak said that the improving state of the country’s roads would mean any flight route to the provinces would need to be very competitively priced.

A round-trip flight from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap using the national carrier Cambodia Angkor Air currently costs about $200 with taxes. And Mr. Sotheak said similar length flights to provincial airports would cost at least the same price, a tough sell when bus tickets go for less than $10 for a one-way trip.

“I want to have domestic flights, but I am worried that they will not work out, because not all the tourists will be able to afford the flights. I think they will only be used by high-class people,” said Uch Umphinisara, director of Battambang’s provincial tourism department.

While visitors to Battambang last year reached 347,529 people—of which 58,941 were foreigners—figures from other provinces are much lower, drawing into question the level of demand for regular flights to the provinces.

A total of 125,035 people visited Preah Vihear last year, but only 10,572 of those were foreign tourists, according to figures from the Tourism Ministry.

Luke Bezett, operations manager at Helicopters Cambodia, the country’s only charter operator besides Helistar Cambodia, and whose pilots routinely land on or near the disused runways, said it would not take much work to bring the facilities up to minimum commercial aviation standards.

Mr. Bezett said that in addition to repaving the runways, runway lighting would have to be installed, but only if night flights were going to take place. Most of the airports, he said, already have air traffic control systems, which allow pilots to communicate with each other and with ground controllers over the radio.

“It wouldn’t take much to fix them up,” Mr. Bezett wrote in an email. “The only thing is, who will use them if they do repair them?”

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