The onset of the coronavirus pandemic is, without a doubt, an economic calamity that has ravaged sectors worldwide. At the eye of the storm lies what is probably the hardest-hit industry, tourism. The smokeless industry, which banks on people’s wanderlust, was left floundering following major losses incurred from travel restrictions and lockdowns. The Cambodian tourism sector has not been spared, with 2,865 tourism-related businesses closed or on the verge of doing so. Despite positive hopes for recovery, the pandemic is expected to leave an indelible mark on the industry. Khmer Times talks to Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents, regarding the current decline in tourist foot traffic and how the sector is projected to change in the post-COVID-19 period.
KT: The government seems to have done a good job in combatting COVID-19, with a 38-day no-virus streak with only two new imported cases being reported thereafter. Has the Kingdom’s low record brought any improvements for the tourism industry lately?
Ms Sivlin: The industry continues to stagnate despite the sweeping effort the government has been expending. Many tourism-related businesses have either temporarily halted operations or shut down permanently. Foreign visitors have become a rare sight in the Kingdom due to the lingering fear and anxiety over the coronavirus, exacerbated by the travel restrictions imposed worldwide.
On the other hand, locals, who have been cooped up in their homes for months, have started trickling out of their doors and travelling again. Although domestic travels are not enough to stimulate the tourism sector, this small number of foot traffic can still have some positive effect on the industry.
KT: When do you think things will normalise?
Ms Sivlin: If by “normal”, you mean having the average number of international tourists as recorded during the pre-pandemic period, the industry will likely take time to rebound – probably three or four years. That is because the coronavirus has hit the tourism sector the hardest, for various reasons. First, the industry is non-essential. By definition, that means people can still survive without it. Second, tourism can only flourish if people have the luxury or the desire to travel. COVID-19 has dampened both of these. Even if the public health crisis is abated, it is unlikely people will start travelling immediately; they will have to make money first.
KT: What do you think tourism in the post-pandemic period will look like?
Ms Sivlin: Like in other industries, tourism – from travel agencies and airline companies to resorts and lodgings – will have to adapt to what has been touted as the “new normal”. This includes the implementation of a number of measures to protect tourists and clients. For example, a bus which used to transport 30 tourists may have to cut down seating capacity by half in adherence to distancing guidelines while free hygiene and sanitary supplies would have to be provided to visitors. Domestic travel, followed by travel to neighbouring countries, is likely to increase first. In fact, our association has always pushed for intra-regional tourism among Asean member states.
KT: While waiting for the sector to recover, what do you think Cambodia’s tourism-reliant businesses should be doing?
Ms Sivlin: Like it or not, they should take advantage of this time to improve their services and products so they can draw in more tourists once the crisis is over. After the pandemic, the demands of the tourists will be more difficult to satisfy, with expectations for safety through the roof. Before the pandemic, the influx of tourists did not afford businesses much time to renovate or remodel their services, so they should definitely take this downtime, especially since our neighbouring countries will surely be doing the same to boost their tourism industry.
KT: What has the government been doing to assist the hard-hit tourism sector and are their measures effective?
Ms Sivlin: The government has been doing a great job in helping businesses within the tourism industry by providing them with tax exemption, licence extensions and financial assistance to their displaced workers. All of these have at least allowed them to survive. Nonetheless, I would like to ask all relevant institutions to cooperate with the private sector in creating new products and packages for visitors. Without these, it would be hard to attract tourists to come into the country. I’m sure it will not be too challenging though, given that the Kingdom has many natural gifts already, from the renowned Angkor Wat and other temples to the beautiful beaches and mountains that line our country.