siem reap – After months of empty hotel rooms, deserted cafes and forlorn taxi drivers waiting for a fare, tourists are beginning to come back and businesses hope they are seeing the beginning of a recovery in this vital industry.
“Everyone is very upbeat,” said Hotel Grand D’Angkor’s general manager, Gilbert Madhavan. “From the moto-dops to restaurants, even the guests.”
Hotels, airlines and tour operators are all expecting a busy month, although so far it has been quieter than November, when more than 24,000 people visited Siem Reap, according to provincial tourism officials.
“Last year was not very good, but this year has been OK,” said Teavy, who sells baskets, kramas and silver from her market stall.
At the Grand, one year after opening with just 51 rooms, the hotel now boasts 131 rooms and is fully booked for the end of the year, Madhavan said.
With the optimism that a full recovery will come soon, hotels are sprouting around town. Scheduled to open next month is the 131-room Angkor Hotel owned by Angkor Tourism, Kim Chhai Hieng said. Four other large hotels are also under construction on the airport road and a five-story hotel near the Grand called Angkor Century will also open soon, he added.
The tourism recovery is not yet complete, however. Tea Franna, Diethelm Travel’s Siem Reap branch manager, said bookings were still 30 percent down compared to December 1996, the last year that saw strong tourism growth before factional fighting broke out in July 1997.
Nationwide, about 149,000 tourists visited Cambodia during the first 10 months of 1998, a 20.5 percent decrease compared to 1997, according to the Tourism Ministry.
While many hoped the election would mark the beginning of a recovery, tourism office Deputy Director Kim Chhai Hieng said the opposition demonstrations that followed the July polls further delayed the process.
Tourists seemed to have little idea of specifics of the recent upheavals in Cambodia. One Canadian couple visiting Siem Reap last week, Karyn and Brian Murphy of Toronto, said they were unaware of the new government but were told the situation had stabilized and it was safe to come.
“We had our doubts and were nervous,” said Brian Murphy. “But Siem Reap is very peaceful, and the temples are magnificent. I’m really glad we came.”
The Murphys, like many tourists, took advantage of the direct charter flights into Siem Reap from Bangkok, bypassing Phnom Penh. In fact, more people arrived on the direct charter flights than by plane or boat from Phnom Penh between August and October, according to Kim Chhai Hieng.
But reaction to news that the government is considering ending the direct international service was mixed.
“It’s very bad,” said Pierre Carron, manager of Angkor Village, where many guests have flown in straight from Bangkok. “If we don’t have flights from overseas it will be a disaster.”
Madhavan suggested that while some people would still visit the temples, others might be put off by the extra time or cash required to travel via Phnom Penh.
Many people on the flights are in Bangkok for conferences and the direct flights allow them to hop over to Siem Reap for one or two nights, he said.