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Tourism savaged by COVID-19

Sorn Sarath / Khmer Times Share:
Enjoying a paddle in one of the nation’s rivers. Ministry of Tourism

As of May, government data shows COVID-19 forced the closure of nearly 3,000 tourism-based business and left more than 45,045 staff members unemployed.

The unemployment and rising debt would severely affect the social economy while the Minister of Tourism estimated that the tourism sector would see a huge loss of $3 billion in revenue this year.

Cambodia is the one Asean member that has been putting a strict travelling ban on foreigners who wish to enter the country.

Industry insiders have called on the government to ease the restriction and apply strict safety measures instead otherwise it would kill the sector and social economy.

Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents, has also insisted the government consider reopening tourism services by easing the travel restrictions to secure tourism industry.

“I mean any business such as a pub, massage parlour and spa should resume business. We call on the government to ease the restrictions but take strict safety measures instead introduced by the Ministry of Tourism because we cannot wait to see until COVID-19 ends or we will die before COVID-19 does,” she said.

Sivlin said thousands of the unemployed have been struggling to survive because rising debt would lead to social issues. The most affected place is Siem Reap where the businesses wholly depend on tourism services.

Ratanakiri is famous for its picturesque lakes. Ministry of Tourism

“Some of them have started to farm and borrow money from friends for daily survival because they expected there would be a solution, but so far nothing has changed. Everyone is now just trying to make ends meet. Some of them have started selling their assets to pay off debts. As I know, some tour guides are putting on sale their homes to pay loans and for daily living.”

As of June, 18 hotels and 96 guesthouses​ in Siem Reap have permanently closed, 172 hotels and 99 guesthouses have temporarily halted operations with only 40 hotels and 66 guesthouses fully operational. It has affected about 8,000 workers, according to Siem Reap, provincial tourism department director Ngov Seng Kak.

The government will adjust quarantine measures and prepare special arrangements but only for potential investors, technical experts and consultants who come to the Kingdom. The tourism visa is still unavailable, said senior officers of the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA).

Under the Kingdom’s health measures, all foreigners who travel to Cambodia will have to have proof of medical insurance to the value of $50,000 and a health certificate from a certified medical professional that states they are free of the COVID-19 infection. This is valid for up to 72 hours. They will also need a deposit of $3,000 upon arrival in Cambodia and spend 14 days in quarantine.

Sivlin said the government’s measures are deterring  visitors.

“Now we are questioning each other if the situation continues much longer how we can survive and what will the sector look like because unemployment will be huge,” she said. “Truly, the 50 percent currently paid by employers to staff sent home will go down to 30 and 20 percent and finally zero.”

Sivlin said companies will abandon their businesses if the government keeps restriction measures running much longer.

“I just had a meeting with members to encourage them to work with Asean and local visitors to secure business but I am not sure how long we can survive and we are very worried when skilled
hospitality staff change career. The sector will lack human resources,” she said.

However, she said, while some Asean countries are considering a travel bubble to save their economies, Cambodia may find it hard to control the possibility of a second wave of the outbreak.

Thailand has now allowed pubs to reopen and plans to let in some foreign travellers from certain countries after recording five weeks without any community transmission of COVID-19.

Pubs, bars and karaoke venues will be able to operate until midnight as long as they follow safety guidelines such as ensuring two metre spaces between tables.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam proposed a travel bubble be set up with countries that have contained the Novel Coronavirus to resume tourism and economic activities. Singapore is also considering setting up a travel bubble to resume its own tourism activities.

Minister of Tourism Thong Khon said that Cambodia’s tourism sector has shown some positive signs since May, boosted by domestic visitors and foreigners living here. The minister said as of June more than 450,000 people travelled to tourism destinations in the country.

“That shows a recovery in the tourism sector since the end of April and the local tourists will keep increasing as long as the government’s measures remain,” he said.

Cyclists enjoy a break during a countryside tour. Ministry of Tourism

Khon said Phnom Penh is not as severely affected as other main tourism destinations such as Siem Reap. He added that the number of tourism-related businesses in the capital either permanently or temporarily closed is 124 – about 10 percent of the total business in the country and affecting 1,960 staff. However, the figure exclude entertainment services, spas and massage parlours, which remain shut. Some bars have started serving food and applied for restaurant licences in an attempt to reopen.

However, Thoun Sinan, president of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, said the sector remained strongly dependent on international tourists and locals alone could not secure the industry.

“We are different from Vietnam and Thailand that have a strong connectivity and huge populations. Their local tourists can keep the sector alive up to 40 percent while Cambodia remained strongly dependent on international tourists,” he said.

Sinan said any change will depend on the government and the deposit of $3,000 for foreigners is scaring them from entering Cambodia.

“The government needs to have a clear strategy and the measure has not provided any benefits for Cambodia but caused a huge loss,” he said. “And the government doesn’t see any concrete strategy to attract tourism after COVID-19. We have a prevention strategy but we don’t have an attraction one.”

However, Sinan said if the pandemic ends by the end of the year, the sector will see a return of 20 percent but it will take until 2025 for a full recovery.

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