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Devastating drop in numbers at Phnom Penh’s museums

Jason Boken / Khmer Times Share:
Visitors study pictures of victims who were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum before being taken to a killing field. KT/Siv Channa

Some of Phnom Penh’s most renowned museums have seen a drop in visitors of up to 95 percent because of the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of tourism, leaving worries about theír future  and staff cutbacks.

Museums in Cambodia have always been a magnet in attracting tourists on their journey through Southeast Asia.

People from across the globe flock to find out about the rich and recent history of Cambodia.

That was until COVID-19 spread across the world making its mark and wiping out many industries. One of the industries that has felt the impact the most has been tourism.

Borders being closed, flights being cancelled and mass quarantine across the world has caused a crippling effect on the tourism sector. Many businesses have had to close down or make huge cutbacks by either making staff redundant or reducing their salaries.

With that being said, the pandemic has certainly made an impact on the museums in the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. Two of the once most-visited museums in the city are the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center widely known as S21, one of many so-called killing fields.

Both of these museums educate tourists on the recent bitter history of Pol Pot’s reign with the Khmer Rouge regime, ending only around 40 years ago. The Khmer Rouge caused a Cambodian genocide that led to the death of 1.5 to 2 million people, around 25 percent of Cambodia’s population at the time.

Both of these museums before COVID-19 would see thousands of tourists a week visit them to find out about the gut-wrenching past of the Khmer Rouge.

Recently, though, Cambodia has seen a massive drop in tourism because of the strict measures put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. Numbers of people visiting the museums have dropped up to 95 percent.

Hang Nisay, Director of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, said: “We have seen a massive drop in numbers since COVID-19. We are down by around 95 percent compared with how many people were visiting us before. Not only has a lack of tourism affected us: We have programmes to bring in students from local schools in the city and all schools have been closed.”

The museums, however, are under the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts so they are supported by the government. “We currently have around 60 staff, including contractors. We are lucky all of us are still working at the museum with numbers so low,” said Nisay.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center reported a huge fall in attendances too. Before the pandemic the site would have around 3,000 visitors every week. Now it only has around 30 to 40 people visiting.

Ros Sothearavy, deputy director of the museum, said: “We have around 30 staff at the moment but if things carry on like this we will have to let people go by the end of 2020.”

Although numbers are very low, the museums are still bringing some people in. “Of the visitors we are still receiving, the majority are Asian but we do still get some Westerners now and again.”

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