The missing link

Rama Ariadi / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Roads often disappear completely around the Sesan river near the border with Laos, leaving local communities’ access to markets to the mercy of the elements. Rama Ariadi

Road improvement projects to connect rural areas with urban centers of commerce should be prioritised, argues Rama Ariadi, because it would help ensure that Cambodia can reap the benefits of the various regional initiatives to improve logistical connections from Southeast Asia and beyond.

Connectivity is one area that the Cambodian government is especially keen on improving. From the planned reopening of the Western railway line which ultimately will reconnect Cambodia and Thailand by rail, upgrade works are currently on-going on the country’s major international gateways in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Beyond that, the government is also planning on constructing a second airport in the capital — and based on the figures, it almost seems prudent (at least, on the surface) to do so.

If one were to take a look on the figures released by Cambodia’s tourism authorities, the country is experiencing a serious influx of tourists — in 2017 alone, Cambodia welcomed 8.8 million tourists through its international airports, which is equivalent to a 25 percent increase from the figure noted throughout 2016. Within the first quarter of 2018 alone, Cambodia’s international airports have already seen a 26.1 percent increase in passenger traffic.

The absence of roads allows indigenous communities to retain their traditions.. Photo: Rama Ariadi

In cognisant of such incredible growth figures (which is around 50 percent more than the average increase of visitors compared to its Asean neighbours), the government is planning to construct a behemoth of an international gateway, a 2,600 hectare international airport in Kandal province. Should this plan come to fruition, the completed airport would be the ninth largest airport in the world – a title that is currently held by the pride and joy of Thailand’s aviation industry that is Bangkok’s gleaming Suvarnabhumi International Airport.

Living standards in Northeast Cambodia are significantly lower due to the difficult terrain of the area. Photo: Rama Ariadi

Having a larger airport would inevitably result in an increased capacity on plane movements, and as such, passenger traffic. Without a doubt, with proper management, these additional capacity to handle more aircrafts per hour can translate into profitability from more available slots, which could benefit both the government and the passengers – as more slots means more competitive fares. However, consider this fact – there are currently only three domestic destinations that are linked by Cambodian air carriers. Fares remain prohibitive for the average individual to justify – a regular fare, return ticket to Sihanoukville or Siem Reap rarely drops below the $80-mark – as such, one may be justified in asking, whose benefit are these gleaming gateways being built for?

The answer, really depends on who the question is asked to. For tourists and frequent visitors to Cambodia, the construction of a new airport is somewhat of an ambivalent news. “If a larger airport translates to easier connections and lower fares from other regions then it is definitely news I would welcome,” said Safira Mardjono, a business traveller from Indonesia. “Everytime I come to visit, for example, I always have to transfer in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore, which significantly adds to my total traveling time.”

That said, many factors dictate the opening of a route and hence the profitability and sustainability of an airport – more so than the mere availability of landing and takeoff slots. The size of the domestic market, for instance, is another factor that needs to be taken into account. While there are airports out there that has managed to survive despite diminutive domestic demands – Singapore’s Changi Airport and Doha’s Hamad International Airport come to mind as a prime example. The key to the survival of these airports is that they are backed by other related investments, the most important being investments into establishing national flag-carrier that could compete internationally by providing efficient onward connections to other destinations to compensate for the lack of domestic demand.

In other words – without strong domestic demands, the new airports need to be designed as a hub, not a mere final destination.

Unpaved roads like this will disappear when it rains. Photo: Rama Ariadi

What is easier to gauge, however, is the amount of money that is being injected into the construction of the new airport. While 90 percent of the $1.5 billion project funded by the Overseas Cambodia Investment Company (OCIC), the government is expected to hold 10 percent of the remaining shares worth $150 million – a diminutive amount compared to the sum, but a significant amount of money for a developing economy like Cambodia.

As such, one should be forgiven for asking – is the money better off spent in other sectors, perhaps, road improvement projects to connect rural areas with urban centers of commerce? As it turns out, from the north plateaus to the southern coasts of the country, there are still people who think that road building projects should be prioritised over the construction of new airports. And it seems, the more remote the area, the stronger the conviction that the construction of better roads would bring about more benefits, compared to the construction of another airport to serve the capital.

In the hills of Ratanakiri province, 35-year old Keo Sona, runs regular tours to remote, tribal areas inhabited by the Tumpouns and the Jarays in Andoung Meas, near the Vietnamese border. “The roads leading up to the provincial capital of Banlung have seen major improvements in recent years,” said Sona. “But that’s the extent of the progress – to date, there are still many communities that remain disconnected from centers of commerce because of the state of the roads.”

Most of the roads leading out of Banlung are still unpaved. Photo: Rama Ariadi

“These roads often disappear completely when the monsoon downpours come as they remain unpaved – as such, when the rainy season comes, people who rely on the tourism industry like me, really do feel the pinch as when the road disappears, so does our source of income,” finished Sona.

But road investments will undoubtedly bring about benefits for everyone – not just individuals who rely on the tourist industry to survive. With Cambodia’s neighbours in the north are already preparing their road and rail infrastructures to make the most of out of the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), perhaps it is the right time for the government to adapt their priorities and reorient their focus on the needs of remote, local communities. While it is easier said than done, especially considering that international tourists remain one of the largest contributors to the Kingdom’s gross domestic product, connecting these areas with better roads is a long-term investment that is definitely worth considering.

Not just because building better roads will empower rural communities by providing them with easier access to markets and better services, but also because it would help ensure that Cambodia can reap the benefits of the various regional initiatives to improve logistical connections from Southeast Asia and beyond. The earlier the government realises the need to improve connectivity within Cambodia, the better – because as the old adage goes, the early bird catches the worm.

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