Despite the relative control over COVID-19 in Cambodia, which has only recorded a mere 141 cases and zero deaths, the virus continues to ravage the economy.
The impact has been especially felt in one of Cambodia’s leading sectors, tourism, as the Ministry of Tourism reported a 38.5 percent decrease in arrivals in the first quarter of 2020 on top of the mass exodus by expatriates and tourists in the pandemic’s wake.
As a result, businesses have had to respond to keep afloat and continue to not only entice customers but ensure top health and safety measures.
Therefore, as tourism-related business prices are slashed, COVID-19 remains under control and low visitor numbers bring back serenity unseen in sites such as Angkor Wat for centuries, sector stakeholders argue there is no better time to visit the Kingdom of Wonder.
Siem Reap-based social enterprise co-founder and marketing director, Ilana Tulloch, says her Baby Elephant Group Hotel, Guesthouse and Spa enterprises have all felt the hit. However, they are also ready for the revival.
“Tourism in the region almost disappeared overnight. We’ve had cancellations for more than 90 percent of our existing bookings for the year and we have no idea when tourism will return,” she says.
Nevertheless, she says that strong ties with the community and a diverse range of products have allowed her businesses to weather the storm so far.
“We have promoted a number of services and products amid the pandemic. We created a #helpyourherd gift voucher offer for people to purchase in advance of their next visit.”
“The voucher not only ensures the businesses’ future, but in turn allows us to continue paying staff as well as fund our community projects, such as by providing food for out-of-work locals and our fostered animals. We have also reduced our rates for our accommodation and spa services by 50 and 20 percent respectively, with staycation packages available for visitors,” Tulloch adds.
She also says that on top of her current community investment, she had coined the hashtag #openinSiemReap, which is being shared across social media to inform travellers of the facilities and businesses that remain open amid the pandemic.
“Being an ethically run business is important for us and we believe responsible tourism is key to supporting communities during this time. We have already implemented safety measures, trained our staff, and we now need to get the message out that Cambodia has minimal infection rates and [thus] urge for more relaxed measures regarding new arrivals to revive the sector and more importantly, get our community back on its feet,” she adds.
Another former tourist hotspot feeling the pinch is Kampot. Peter Hans who owns Nomad Working Space, a hotel and lodging space in the area, insists there’s no better time to visit the region.
“Guests feel very comfy and safe here. If anything, our stranded guests have contributed to a really positive environment,” he says. “The difficulty we face now is that as flights restart, people are beginning to leave. Therefore, we have begun to present a series of offers on long stays to hopefully bring more people in.”
“We also offer free full-day tours, which we used to charge $15 per person for, to entice people to visit and enjoy the region. The tours help support the community and show people what Kampot has to offer. We have implemented temperature checks and safety measures as well as our own in-house community board, where people can stay up to date,” Hans adds.
Indeed, as businesses offer bargains on their products and services, locals, stranded tourists and expatriate “remainers” lap up the deals.
Beth Twindle, a UK national unable to travel home since the pandemic struck, says the discounts have only sweetened her experience of being “stuck” in the Kingdom.
“By the time I got round to booking my flights home to be with my family during the pandemic, they were all cancelled. But I had travelled to Phnom Penh in anticipation to fly so I was essentially stuck here,” she says.
“I was renting short-stay accommodations at a few places but didn’t want to keep moving around. I eventually got a great long-stay deal at Poolside Villa near Bassac lane. As the situation has gotten worse around the world, it’s been under control here and it’s turned out to be one of the best places to be. I feel safe, can live here cheaply and do my freelance work by the pool!” Twindle adds.
South African teacher, Carla Ribeiro, had her school closed as a result of government measures in March, but has continued tutoring online in the Kingdom.
“As the pandemic hit, everything closed for a period. However, I felt Cambodia was safe and therefore looked into staycation at hotels and was pleasantly suprised to find so many deals in Phnom Penh.”
“I booked into Aquarius Hotel at a reduced price and the pool and bar area was so quiet, it was like my own personal hotel. I have been having mini-staycations since! The safety measures are always in place and make me feel reassured,” she says.
Aided by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s call for more domestic tourism, locals have also taken to the road, offering a boost for much needed destinations such as Sihanoukville.
Twenty-one-year-old Srey Ny says her family usually visits the coastal region for Khmer New Year but were deterred by the outbreak during the time.
“Since the pandemic has eased, my family believes it is under control, so we all visited. It is so quiet at the moment which really added to the experience,” she adds.
However, as Khmer Times reported last month, visitors from outside the country are currently deterred by current airport measures, especially the $3,000 deposit.
Twenty-six-year-old British national Alice Shaw is one such tourist who says she would love to travel to the Kingdom but is put off by the measures.
“I would be happy to take the tests to show I am COVID-19 free and already have a valid health insurance policy per the requirements, but I don’t have $3,000 to deposit on top of the substantially increased flight costs. I will have to wait until the deposit is waived. I’m also not 100 percent sure why the deposit is necessary when my health insurance would cover any potential costs if I tested positive,” she adds.
Indeed, on top of the deals and incentives across the country, the tourism sector and the communities which rely on it are calling for more stimulus from the government to boost arrivals.
Amid the pandemic and with many countries still in lockdown, Cambodia may not be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel just yet, but a few more lights on in Pub Street would be a positive start.