Sok Phal, Secretary of State at the Interior Ministry, has exclusively told Khmer Times that he is seeking approval from the Minster of the Interior Sar Kheng to waive overstay fines for tourists stranded in the country due to the ongoing severe disruption to flights caused by COVID-19.
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“We [the Ministry of Interior] will issue the directive by the end of this week. Many tourists, including a majority of Chinese visitors, have no choice but to stay past their visa expiration date because of cancelled flights and border closures that are happening because of the pandemic,” he said.
Sok added that officials are currently collating the exact number of people whose legal documentation to stay within the country is no longer of use.
“When we receive the total number of ‘overstay’ tourists, we will ask the principle from the Interior Minister and the government to turn our proposal into a directive,” he added. “This issue is not because the visitors do not want to go back their country but because their country closed the borders or there is currently no return flight home,” Sok adds. Currently, the Ministry of Tourism says it is employing a “flexible” approach to aid travellers having problems leaving the country. This includes working with relevant authorities in stranded national’s countries to smooth the process.
“So far there has been no punishment for those whose visas have expired. We are working with the immigration police and health authorities to either extend visas or in some cases, speaking with foreign embassies to organise accommodation for those who need it,” Sok explained.
As nations react unilaterally to the spreading virus in terms of border closures and last-minute flight cancellations, travellers across the globe are stuck in limbo. With the cost per day of an overstay in Cambodia is $10, it is quickly adding up for travellers unable to return to their country.
Cambodia’s aviation and tourism sectors are also being crippled by the effects of COVID-19, according to Top Sopheak, spokesperson at the Ministry of Tourism.
“At present, there are some flights, but not many. Incoming flights have also been severely reduced, so fewer international visitors are coming to Cambodia,” Top said.
While the Ministry of Tourism has appealed to Cambodians and tourists not to travel, it is not mandatory yet. As such, Top says that figures show that around 100 foreign tourists a day are still trickling into Siem Reap province to visit the world-famous Angkor Wat temple complex. But this is a drop in the ocean in comparison with the 2.6 million visitors a year that the attraction usually welcomes. Other figures are demonstrating the early effects of the virus on the Cambodia’s tourism industry. According to the Ministry of Tourism, in January this year, Cambodia welcomed around 547,963 international visitors, a 15.3 percent fall when compared with the same period last year. Among the total of international visitors, air tourists numbered of 332,134, down 17.7 percent and land visitors dropped to 189,412, down 13.6 percent.
Chinese nationals, usually the highest number of visitors to the country, were the first to face travel bans and fell 32.3 percent, dropping to 123,550 from 182,449 compared with the same period last year. Korean tourists dropped about 10 percent to only 37,206 from 41,364 in the same period last year, France was 12.8 percent down, with 19,344 and 71.3 percent fewer visitors arrived from Laos.