This article was first published in Khmer Times on March 18, 2024.

The tourism sector has long been a linchpin of Cambodia’s economic growth and employment. The abundance of natural, cultural, and historical assets has helped attract millions of foreign visitors to the Kingdom each year.

The tourism sector has allowed Cambodia to earn billions of U.S. dollars in tourism revenue and generate a wide range of jobs. In 2019, the sector directly employed 630,000 people with tourism receipts peaking at USD4.9 billion, or 18.2 percent share of GDP, the highest among the ASEAN+3 economies.

Nonetheless, the pandemic disrupted Cambodia’s tourism industry on an unprecedented scale. At the height of the pandemic in 2020-21, the number of tourist arrivals contracted sharply by 82.6 percent to 0.8 million, from 6.6 million in 2019. Tourist arrivals have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels so far. The total number of foreign visitors in 2023 only reached 82.5 percent of the 2019 level, reflecting the pandemic’s scarring effect on the country’s travel and tourism industry.

Insufficient infrastructure and product offerings

Our recently published 2023 Annual Consultation Report on Cambodia highlights long-standing structural challenges in the tourism industry, which should be addressed to support the post-pandemic recovery and its further development.

Limited hard and soft infrastructure is one of the major bottlenecks holding back tourism development. In particular, insufficient long-haul and direct flights from and to major cities cause inconveniences for overseas tourists.

The country’s newly built Siem Reap Angkor International Airport and Techo Takhmao International Airport which is under construction and on track for opening next year, are expected to facilitate and drive more leisure and business travels to the country.

Furthermore, Cambodia’s labor force is not equipped with sufficient skills. The latest Travel and Tourism Development Index 2021 compiled by the World Economic Forum suggests that Cambodia is trailing behind other regional economies with regard to human resources and labor market conditions.

Other challenges weighing on Cambodia’s attractiveness include the lack of diverse tourism product offerings and insufficient tourism promotion.

Cambodia’s tourism products are highly concentrated in cultural heritage, especially revolving around the Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious structure. However, there are very few other tourist attractions in the vicinity of the Angkor Archeological Park and a limited number of shopping centers. Souvenirs or locally manufactured products also appear to be scarce in the market.

For overseas tourists, the availability of international hotel brands is an important hygiene factor, but they remain fairly limited in Cambodia relative to other tourism powerhouses in Asia. Hence, there is still plenty of room to invest in quality hotels with better facilities.

Post-pandemic strategies for the tourism industry

What can Cambodia do to make itself a sweet tourism spot and take on a prominent role in the region?

First, a major effort should be made to diversify the tourism industry from Angkor Wat-focused tourism products and related promotional campaigns should be launched. Thanks to its rich cultural heritage and natural beauty, Cambodia should also leverage them to build more tourist attractions, focus more on community-based tourism and ecotourism, while building the necessary infrastructure.

For instance, in addition to the regular tours to the Angkor Archeological Park and cultural village, the Siem Reap province can develop an area specifically designed for tourists to embrace cultural and historical values, such as offering a homestay experience featuring the lifestyle during the Angkor era. New tourist attractions, such as the Angkor Wonder Garden as well as Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium, are steps in the right direction.

Rich in natural resources and biodiversity, Cambodia not only has many protected areas, such as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, but it is also home to rare animal species in Asia, including the Mekong River dolphins. The Tonle Sap Lake is one of the potential ecotourism sites, yet the tourism facilities and amenities such as boat rides remain weak. In this regard, these ecotourism sites and their supportive infrastructure should be further developed.

Tourism campaigns should also be broadened by focusing not only on historical and ecotourism sites assets but also on other attractions, such as Cambodia’s beautiful coastal areas.

Second, the government should provide more financial support for critical tourism-related investment. More budget should be allocated to the development of hard and soft infrastructure for all tourism segments, including cultural/ historical, community-based tourism, and ecotourism.

Investments are necessary to improve transport infrastructure by increasing the number of long-haul and direct flights; build more entertainment locations, theme parks, and shopping centers around tourist attractions; build more accommodations with better facilities; upgrade the skills of the labor force; and encourage more micro, small and medium enterprises to produce souvenirs.

Third, harnessing digitalization is key to promoting tourism and facilitating travel. At present, Cambodia is seen as an add-on itinerary rather than a main tourist destination by most travelers. The country should place greater efforts into promoting itself as a preferred tourist destination to the global tourists through digital marketing campaigns. To revive its travel and tourism industry in the post pandemic new normal, Cambodia should adopt digital technology to modernize its immigration system; facilitate visa application; and improve ticketing and reservation for tourists.

In early 2021, the government released a roadmap aimed at turning Cambodia into a quality, safe and sustainable tourist destination as well as attracting 7 million tourists to the Kingdom by 2025. While these lofty targets may be challenging to realize in the short term, with planning, investment, and promotion, Cambodia has the potential to become a world-class tourist destination in the long term.