Here’s the multi-million dollar question – will Siem Reap’s tourism sail quickly into recovery mode once the world has recovered from the pandemic?
This is ‘The Year of Tourism’ according to the government, a somewhat ironic designation given that there have been almost no tourists this year.
Last year, Angkor Archeological Park welcomed 2.2 million foreign tourists. This year there were only 398,485 international visitors during the first 10 months, plunging Siem Reap’s tourism into turmoil. 3,000 tourism-related businesses were forced to close and around 10 percent of hotels in Siem Reap are open for operation as of October, but they are making no profit, according to David-Jaya Piot, president of the Hotel Association of Cambodia, Siem Reap Branch.
However, Tourism Minister Thong Khon said in October he hopes a new destination development plan in Siem Reap will bring in seven million international tourists annually by 2035.
Sadly, tourism boomed in Siem Reap in the pre-pandemic part of the year, with traditional tourism being complemented by new trends, one of them being a surge in river cruises, part of a world-wide uptick.
In late February, the Washington Post said: “The demand for river cruises globally is enormous.”
But less than a month later, the cursed COVID-19 crisis scuttled that mini-boom for Siem Reap with long-time regulars such as Pandaw Cruises postponing all trips until May next year.
Another early river cruise entrant was Peruvian company Aqua Expeditions, which launched its 40-passenger luxury 20-designer-suite purpose-built cruise ship Aqua Mekong on October 14, 2014.
The vessel initially sailed three, four and seven-day cruises along the Mekong River between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, and was the company’s first venture outside of the Amazon.
Several new companies, which had launched in the last 18 months to cater for the much-heralded boom, also had to drop anchor for a while.
In August last year, Evergreen Cruises launched its first Asian-based ship, the Emerald Harmony, on the Mekong River. The company promised a variety of cruises from Vietnam which included Siem Reap stop-overs.
The new custom-built ship, designed to cruise shallower waters, has 42 staterooms and suites, and, with the eco-friendly sustainability market in mind, has removed all single-use plastic on board.
Also, in August last year, the travel company Vegan Culinary Cruises launched the world’s first LGBTQ-focused cruise along the Mekong River, and the initial voyage was set for between July 4 and July 11 this year.
The week-long Mekong river cruise was organised by London-based vegan blogger and event planner Sean O’Callaghan, otherwise known as Fat Gay Vegan. O’Callaghan has now organised a New Year’s cruise beginning on December 26 and finishing on January 2, 2021.
In January this year, Californian-based Uniworld Boutique River Cruise company billed as the “world’s best river cruise line”, launched a newly built 68-passenger ship, the Mekong Jewel.
The all-suite vessel, which replaces the slightly smaller Mekong Navigator, will regularly cruise the Mekong River from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap.
The vessel has two restaurants, an outdoor bar, a library, a lounge, a small swimming pool, a spa and a sauna. It targets the eco-friendly market by lessening its environmental impact, with “propellers that increase performance and efficiency, energy-efficient LED light fixtures, automatic air conditioning controls to optimise cooling resources and water-cooled air-conditioning systems.”
As a marker that recovery is already underway, Viking River Cruises announced in July that it will launch a new purpose-built river cruise ship, the Viking Saigon, on the Mekong River, with the first cruise set to commence on August 30, 2021.
The itinerary will cover 15 days, including eight days along the Mekong River between Kampong Cham and Ho Chi Minh City. Guests will spend the remaining days in hotels and onshore activities in Siem Reap and Hanoi.
The three-deck Viking Saigon accommodates 80 guests in 40 staterooms with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors, and amenities including an infinity pool, an open-air Sky Bar on the upper deck and a spa and fitness centre.
Before the pandemic struck, sea cruise ships from the United States, Canada and European Union countries had also regularly docked at Sihanoukville’s deep seaport, with tour packages sending passengers to Siem Reap tours.
In January this year, during a visit to China, the Tourism Ministry’s secretary of state Hun Dany pitched the idea of establishing a cruise service from Hainan to Sihanoukville.
The ministry’s spokesman Top Sopheak added that the ministry had already worked with tour agencies to establish tour packages from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap, with the plan to help revive Chinese tourism to the level of last year’s peak.
It’s a sure bet that Siem Reapers who bemoaned last year’s surge of Chinese tourism will now welcome Chinese tourists with open arms, or any tourists from anywhere.