Cambodia’s tourism sector in 2006 posted sharp gains for the third straight year, with tourist arrivals 20 percent higher than 2005, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
During 2006, 1.7 million tourists visited Cambodia, pumping $1.4 billion into the country’s economy—a figure equivalent to 12 percent of the GDP—Tourism Ministry Secretary of State Thong Khon said Tuesday.
In 2005, 1.4 million tourists visited, while in 2004 the country drew just over 1 million visitors, according to the Tourism Ministry.
“This has been a good year because there were no obstacles [to tourism] such as SARS or bird flu,” he said of 2006, adding that he expects the number of visitors in 2007 to increase by a further 20 percent.
The main Cambodian attraction in 2006 remained Angkor archeological complex in Siem Reap province, with Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville as well as Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng provinces getting some visitors, Thong Khon said.
By October, more than 650,000 people had visited Siem Reap, accounting for nearly half of all tourist arrivals in Cambodia, according to Tourism Ministry statistics.
In Siem Reap town, which has around 8,000 hotel rooms, the volume of visitors for New Year’s Eve festivities Sunday evening was so high that availability was practically nil, said Philip Setkao, president of the Cambodian Hotel Association.
The Borei Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap province, where Setkao is general manager, was forced to turn away six to seven carloads of holiday makers, some of whom found lodging as far away as Kompong Thom province, he said.
But the industry is rising to meet demand, he added.
“In Siem Reap, hotels are growing like mushrooms so in terms of room availability, there will be no problem at all,” he said.
A major sticking point for hotel owners is the short average stay of visitors to Cambodia, which the Ministry of Tourism estimates to be about three days, Setkao said.
“It really is very short for us,” he said. “If the number of arrivals keeps increasing smoothly but people don’t stay longer, there will be less benefit.”
Thong Khon said his ministry was counting on the growing number of golf courses in Cambodia to attract longer-term guests.
“Siem Reap has two golf courses, there is one in Phnom Penh and one will be built in Sihanoukville,” he said.
However, the ministry estimates that more than a fifth of tourism-sector revenue in 2006 went abroad due to the consumption of imports such as gasoline and luxury foods, and due to remittances by foreign companies, Thong Khon said.
Such revenue “leakage” was down from 30 percent in 2005 and is projected to continue dropping as Cambodia supplies more of the foods consumed by foreigner visitors, he added.
Thong Khon said he believed high profile visitors are helping encourage tourism in Cambodia.
“After former US President Bill Clinton visited [in December], there were other high profile visitors at Angkor, including the mayor of London [Ken Livingstone],” he said. “I met him and his family in Siem Reap.”
Moeung Sonn, managing director of Eurasie Travel, said that part of the increase in tourism was accounted for by the fact that some holiday-makers preferred Asian destinations to Middle Eastern ones due to unrest in that region.
Arrivals from South Korea, which in 2006 was the number-one country of origin for tourists to Cambodia, appeared to climb even higher following the state visit by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in November, Moeung Sonn said.
But he added that popular Cambodian T-shirts, which read “Danger! Mines!! Cambodia,” could be scaring away visitors, he said.
“I saw some waiters and waitresses in Thailand and Vietnam wearing the T-shirts,” he said.
Cambodian Mine Action Center Deputy Director-General Heng Ratana said CMAC only uses the T-shirts to raise awareness in remote, mine-affected areas and does not produce the T-shirts sold to tourists.