According to the Ministry of Tourism, approximately six million international tourists visited Cambodia in 2018, a 10 percent increase from the previous year. However, in an exclusive interview with Khmer Times, Ho Vandy, secretary-general of the National Tourism Alliance and managing director of World Express Tour and Travel, says the number should have been bigger.
KT: How do you describe the current situation of Cambodia’s tourism in your own words?
Mr Vandy: Tourism in Cambodia is now greater than any other time in history. More and more tourists are coming every year, and we have more hotels, restaurants, resorts, travel agencies and tour guides, and airlines companies more than ever. However, we also witnessed the loss of some relevant activities, such as the river cruise from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, which was booming about 10 years ago. Despite the increase in the number of tourists, we are far from the peak. We are not competitive with our neighbours yet. Our neighbour, Thailand and Vietnam received 36 million and 13 million tourists, respectively, last year. We got only about six million.
KT: What do Vietnam and Thailand have that we don’t, and vice versa?
Mr Vandy: They have many things that we have: low prices, natural and historical resorts and so on. What we have that they do not have is the great Angkor Wat. However, unlike them, we have not diversified our tourist activities yet. Tourists are clustered in only a few places in the country, such as Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, and the provinces of Kampot and Ratanakkiri. The tourism industry in other provinces has not flourished yet, so the people there receive little or no benefit from it. No diversification could lead to boredom among tourists, which prevent them from revisiting Cambodia.
KT: How do you think tourism should be diversified in Cambodia?
Mr Vandy: It is very important that the government pinpoint the special identity of each province and city, and promote it as the core of its tourist activities. For example, Battambang’s special identity is the historical influence of Siam’s occupation and French administration, which has been shown in the architectural structure and cuisines in the province. Those provinces surrounding Tonle Sap lake can promote sightseeing cruises on the lake or water bird watching.
The government has to do its best to preserve these unique characteristics, while promoting the identity. It is essential that the government makes sure the signature features in one place cannot be found in another. Why? It is because they urge tourists to go to places where they originate.
KT: Sex tourism is drawing millions of tourists in some countries such as Thailand. Do you think Cambodia should include sex tourism in its plan?
Mr Vandy: It is true that the adult entertainment industry could be very popular in some countries, but it is impossible in Cambodia. That is because of the issue of sex trafficking, as well as the fact that it is an adversary to the local traditions and culture. However, we can include other entertainment for adults, such as nightclubs, bars and so on.
KT: What other factors do you think prevent tourists from visiting or revisiting Cambodia?
Mr Vandy: First of all, it is hygiene. The level of hygiene or cleanliness in many resorts and hotels in Cambodia is very limited. Tourists, local or international, will never want to stay in hotel rooms with a bad smell or swim in pools filled with dead leaves. They also dislike resorts with trash everywhere. Second, it is the quality of service. Lateness, excessive prices and unfriendliness are examples of bad service. Do you think a visitor wants to come back to a restaurant where the waitresses do not smile? I guess not.
KT: What do you think is the cause of these?
Mr Vandy: It is mainly the lack of professionals in the sector. Many hotel and resort owners and managers have not been trained, and thus do not possess the skills and qualifications to run their facilities. It is not a game everyone can play. Cambodia is facing a lack of highly-skilled service providers, including tour guides, and that could be the thing that chases tourists away. The government has to promote the study of tourism and hospitality among students and also make sure that they can find work upon graduation. It is very important that we do not let our tourism industry be controlled by unprofessional people because it could ruin our country’s reputation as a tourist destination.
KT: What can you foresee in the next 10 years in Cambodia’s tourism industry?
Mr Vanday: It depends. If the public and private sectors work together to improve the situation, and other determinants, such as transportation and security effectively, the country’s tourism will reach its peak in no time and will stay there for a very long time. However, if nothing or only little is done, the decline in tourist arrivals in the country will be the only answer.