The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably disrupted most businesses across all types of industries, with a significant hit to the tourism and travel sector. Countries are practising different methods of control in an attempt to monitor and minimise the spread of the pandemic, whereby lockdowns and movement controls are mostly favoured. This action has put a pause to the global tourism sector because peoples’ movements are now restricted.
In Cambodia, 2,865 tourism businesses were stated as either suspended or closed. It is devastating to Cambodia’s economy because the tourism sector is among the key industries, alongside the garment and footwear sectors, which accounts for 80 per cent of the country’s exports. New Straits Times reports that Cambodia’s tourism sector contributes to 12.1 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product growth and employs up to 630,000 people. Workers involved in the Cambodian tourism sector will panic because of fear of unemployment, negatively affecting the economy and society, unless addressed immediately.
However, despite the closure of businesses in the tourism sector, in the second week of March, more than 190,000 Cambodian and international tourists were recorded visiting resorts and tourist sites in Cambodia. A clear sign, despite the inability of travelling beyond borders, people are still adamant about travelling. The question is, “Is it safe and sustainable?” Travelling is possible if each stakeholder is responsible. Tourists, local communities and every part of the tourism value chain have to play their roles in ensuring that public health is given priority, as advised by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
UNWTO strongly points out the need for ‘new health and safety protocols’, because it is essential to gain the trust of people in ensuring that it is truly safe to travel. A recent article by UNWTO published on May 15 states that “trust is the new currency”. If people trust that the government and tourism sector prioritises the health of people, they will unquestionably travel again; in some cases such as Cambodia, it has already begun. The inflow of tourists to and about Cambodia is a good sign for the country because it contributes to economic growth, during this downturn. However, if not addressed carefully, it could be a double-edged sword, with a potential second wave of infectious disease spreading accross the country. In order to prevent that from happening, policymakers should implement clear protocols for all tourism suppliers and tourists to abide to ensuring the sustainability and safety of travelling.
Main tourist destinations and attractions that are usually swarming with tourists such as Angkor Wat and many other temples across the country should limit the number of tourists visiting, at any one time. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), people will be more inclined to visit uncrowded destinations. Managing the number of visitors is crucial for public health precautions of “social distancing” to mitigate the risk of the virus spreading. Additionally, it should be mandatory that all tourists, tour guides and staff working at these tourist sites, adhere to proper hygiene practices such as wearing masks at all times. Sanitiser stations and disinfectant wipes should be made available around communal areas or key high traffic areas.
Furthermore, it is observed that young travellers are interested in participating in nature-based tourism such as eco-tourism, adventure tourism, and exploring coastal-islands and remote provinces. This point strongly indicates that there is a change in consumer behaviour in the tourism sector in Cambodia because of the pandemic. Instead of flocking to crowded tourist sites, tourists prefer sites and destinations that allow social distancing to be practised. Remote destinations will be preferred rather than urban destinations because crowd avoidance will be the new trend.
Cambodia is rich with its natural resources which, if presented and developed appropriately, could be a new form of tourism as a potential means of recovery for the tourism sector. Instead of focusing on the present mainstream tourist sites in Cambodia, it is ideal to look beyond and invest in other forms of tourism that are sustainable in this current pandemic situation. Niche tourism such as nature-based tourism can be found in Cambodia. Relevant stakeholders and policymakers should invest in creating awareness of these sites because tourism is a resilient sector and has bounced back many times, as history shows. Niche tourism could potentially be a new source of income for Cambodia’s tourism sector, with the support of the government and cooperation of tourism providers and tourists.
An example to illustrate this point is the vKirirom Pine Resort located within the Kirirom National Park in Kampong Speu. To help address the pandemic, the resort has taken necessary measures whereby the resort now ensures that masks and sanitisers are readily available for guests and visitors. Temperature checks are also compulsory for both guests and visitors. Both resort staff and visitors are encouraged to wear masks and practise regular hand washing. However, further steps should be practised, such as conducting regular disinfection in public spaces such as receptions, restaurants, activity sites and rooms. In doing so, it proves that both tourism providers and guests are practising responsible travel, which is strongly encouraged by UNWTO. Even so, it is equally essential for guests, visitors and tourists alike to follow these protocols when visiting a destination.
In summary, countries are taking different measures to address the impact of COVID-19 on the tourism sector. Following the saying of “one size does not fit all”, Cambodia is in the process of identifying measures that are implementable in the country. It is essential to “put people first” whereby strict health measures must be enforced to reduce the risk of a wider spread of the outbreak and to have the support of the government in enforcing international collaboration with international bodies and countries. Despite all these proposed policy options, it is the responsibility of each stakeholder to play their role in ensuring effective, safe and sustainable travel.
Geraldine Tan is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Inclusive Digital Economy (CIDE) of the Asian Vision Institute and a Senior Tourism Lecturer at the Kirirom Institute of Technology. This article was originally published via the Centre for Inclusive Digital Economy of the Asian Vision Institute.