Tourism businesses describe the lack of regular flights to Preah Sihanouk City as a chicken or egg problem: no regular flights limits the amount of people going there but a lack of development and tourists in the coastal city does not encourage airlines to fly to the airport near the seaside town.
It has been less than a year since the province’s upgraded Sihanouk International Airport was inaugurated with the expectation that it would bring aircraft, tourists, and growth to the coast, but with almost an entire tourist high season over, little has happened.
“The hotel association is really suggesting the Ministry of Tourism to help the airlines have daily flights to Sihanoukville,” said Luu Meng, president of the Cambodian Hotel Association. “We have potential business in Sihanoukville but there are no regular flights and people don’t want to take the four or five hour drives from Phnom Penh.”
Since many international tourists plan trips months before the high season, airlines must start planning flights to Sihanouk International Airport now even if it means temporarily operating at a loss and only flying three times a week, he said, adding the government needs to offer incentives to lessen the burden on airlines. Mr Meng said that Siem Reap also faced a similar lack of flights more than a decade ago, but then saw a large amount of growth when flights increased.
Quang Dinh, assistant to the CEO of the country’s new national carrier Cambodia Angkor Air, said the airline has no plans to make regular flights to Preah Sihanouk City because it would not be profitable.
“We cannot take the flights and cover costs, we are the business and think about the business,” he said, adding the airline can make charter flights to Preah Sihanouk City.
Cambodia Angkor Air was launched in July and is a joint-venture with Vietnam Airlines.
Khek Norinda, spokesman for Societe Concessionnaire des Aeroports, which operates the nation’s airports, wrote by e-mail that the SCA is talking to airlines about flights and has previously said SCA would be willing to extend incentives to airlines to fly to Sihanouk International Airport.
“Although the economic environment is still challenging for the traveling industry, we are convinced that, at this point, there’s a demand potential for flights to/from Sihanoukville that airlines could address successfully,” he wrote. “They would definitely be instrumental to extend and to diversify Cambodia’s tourism packages & the range of offers (a mix of heritage tourism and sea & sun tourism, etc).”
Ho Vandy, co-chairman of the Government-Private Sector Forum working group on tourism, said the private sector will discuss the issue of regular flights to Preah Sihanouk at a meeting today and will bring it up with the government again at a meeting in March.
He said the current lack of flights costs tourists both money and time if they are interested in visiting both Siem Reap, the country’s tourism capital, and Sihanoukville, because it requires changing modes of transport in Phnom Penh.
“Cambodia will not be missing out if they quickly react to what the tourists want,” he said.
Without that flight option some tourists find it easier to fly to the other regional beaches and avoid Preah Sihanouk altogether, he said.
An added problem is the inconsistent quality of hotels and restaurants in Preah Sihanouk City, but he said that situation would improve with more tourists.
Daniel Parkes, country manager for the property consultancy CB Richard Ellis, said there is little question about the potential for Preah Sihanouk City but international flights are key to see growth in development.
“There are enough great international quality beaches and islands down on the south coast to warrant some serious high quality hotels and yet that can only occur when the is a good international airline serving and taking passengers to that location,” he said.
Michael Lin, the general manager of Sohka Beach Resort, one the city’s few luxury hotels, said the beach hotel only reached 70 percent occupancy this high season because of the economic crisis, though greater accessibility would have no doubt changed that.
“It depends on the airlines, I suppose. It’s a chicken or egg situation. If there is a flight, it would encourage more travelers to come by,” he said. Tourism Minister Thong Khon said he was too busy to comment yesterday.