Tourism Development in Cambodia: An Analysis of Opportunities and Barriers
By: Paul Leung, Terry Lam & Simon Wong (All are faculty members in the Department of Hotel and Tourism Management, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hum Hong, Kowloon, Hong Kong).
Cambodia has been perceived as one of the major destinations for development in the southeast Asia region. Information regarding the country and its attractions have been difficult to obtain. This study investigated the opportunities and barriers the Cambodian tourism industry now faces.
The desire to establish tourism as a primary economic and social force in Indochina has increased substantially in recent years. Interest in the related culture is reported to be at a peak presently, and the corresponding governments rely on tourism to maximize their foreign exchanges. Numerous commercial and academic studies have been conducted on destinations such as Vietnam and Laos. However, not much has been done regarding the newly re-opened Kampuchea, better known as Cambodia. Although there are reasonable grounds to believe that all these countries are facing similar problems owing to their assimilated geographical and historical background, they do have specific characters which have contributed to their unique tourism development.
Bordered by Thailand in the west and northwest, Laos to the north, and Vietnam in the east, Cambodia was once perceived as the farmland of Asia. The only coastal exit is the seashore at the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodia is characterized as a large flat piece of land, 181,000 sq. km., used primarily as a large agrarian state before the decades of war. In the 1960s, Cambodia was one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the southeast Asia. It was perceived as a wonderland for Western tourists. During this Golden Age of the Cambodian tourism industry, Phnom Penh with its distinctive cultures, customs, and heritage -- the legendary temples near Siem Reap and especially, the Angkor Wat -- were considered the major tourist attractions. The civil war which began in 1970, put an end to the prosperous years. Until 1992, when the economy started to regain momentum, as the United Nations instituted a peace-keeping and rehabilitation plan which helped to restore political stability in Cambodia.
The Cambodian government is very enthusiastic about re-opening its borders to foreign travelers. The country, however, is facing numerous problems which have hindered this development. Lack of infrastructure, especially the sewage facilities, inadequate accommodations and facilities, personal security issues, and accessibility to secondary destinations are items which need immediate attention.
The Indochinese countries have been working hard to promote their tourism industries in progressive, positive ways and to redevelop their tourism concepts according to the needs and realities of the present day. The “hard” and “soft” infrastructure support mechanisms for tourism, as well as the tourist attractions themselves, are seriously underdeveloped (Cooper, 1996). This paper reports on the latest tourism development in Cambodia to examine the potentials, to assess the problems, to identify the barriers, and to suggest strategies to overcome the problems and barriers.
Owing to the exploratory nature of this study and the limited information available in secondary form, we have employed in-depth interviews and first-hand observation and site visits as our primary tools for data collection. The authors visited Cambodia twice during the years 1995 and 1996, to conduct interviews with government officials, hoteliers, tourism representatives, and the general public and to solicit different view points.
According to statistics complied by the Ministry of Tourism of Cambodia, in 1994, visitors from mainland China (PRC) ranked the highest in terms of the number of tourist visitors. Travelers from France placed second in frequency of visits and Thailand captured third place. Nevertheless, these statistics were based on incoming visitors through the capital airport, Pochentong International Airport. There are, however, no records of the number of visitors arriving by other means of transportation such as train and ferry. The table below illustrates the distribution of visitors by nationality for the year 1994.
Table 1: Visitor Arrivals By Rank of Nationality / From January To December 1994
|Source: Ministry of Interior and Civil Aviation Authority (1995).|
OPPORTUNITIES AND BARRIERS
Geographically, Cambodia has attractions such as: an unpolluted natural environment, luxurious rain forest vegetation, the mysterious Mekong River, the legend of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, and the Elephant Mountains along the southern coast. All of which combine to make an irresistible temptation for eco-travelers, tropical rain forest enthusiasts, and anyone seeking the unusual.
Unfortunately, these attractions are threatened by human and natural factors. War, economic reform, industrialization, and the development of tourism have imposed undesirable side-effects, if not irreversible damages, to the scenic zones. The need to protect the natural environment is becoming more apparent under the new Cambodian governmental policies. Although the specific action plan is still being formulated, a US $5 billion proposal submitted in 1995, by the Society for Ecology and Wildlife Preservation in Cambodia is designed to forgo industrialization in favor of an “alternative model of development” (Far East Economic Review, 1995). Today, Cambodia has developed 23 natural parks, scenic zones, multi-use zones, and wild animal sanctuaries. However, marketing promotions and tourism support systems such as transportation, restaurants, and lodging accommodations remain rather limited. Moreover, the Mekong River and famous Tonle Sap continue to flood almost every rainy season. Therefore, tourism development in these areas still faces serious logistic problems.
After decades of relentless civil wars and political instability, Cambodia is now on the borderline of poverty. The government, suffering in heavy debt, needs the humanitarian relief efforts offered by foreign countries. From it prospective, tourism promotions and advertising program receive a much lower priority in terms of budgeting allocations. As a result, the growth of tourism related businesses is seriously affected.
In November 1991, when a team of 22,000 peace-keepers from the United Nation Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) arrived in the country hotels and guest houses received an unprecedented boom in business not seen since the 1980’s. When the new Cambodian constitution was ratified in September 1993, it marked an end of the UNTAC’s involvement in the country. Although the number of foreign visitors has increased gradually, according to the Ministry of Tourism, the number of foreign visitors reached 118,000 in 1993, then 177,000 in 1994, and was expected to exceed 200,000 in 1995. The withdrawal of UN troops in 1993 left behind a large number of vacant hotel rooms, since then occupancy percentages have dropped into an average range of 20% to 40%.
Nevertheless, the government has determined to promote Cambodia as a tourist destination and government officials are keen to attend tourism conferences in an effort to promote regional tourism activities. The annual conference of the Pacific Asia Travel Association held in Bangkok April, 1996, marked a milestone in Cambodia’s tourism industry. During the conference, an agreement was reached by the six countries that border the Mekong River to devise a strategy to jointly market the sub-region as “Asia’s last tourism frontier.” These six countries include Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and China -- particularly the southern part of Yunnan. After identifying the tourist sites in these countries, a tourism working committee, the Greater Mekong Sub-region Initiative, will produce videos for promotional purpose, to train tourism personnel, and to initiate a Mekong River Tourism planning study.
Moreover, the Naga Resorts floating casino, opened in May, 1995, also helped in attracting visitors. According to Mr. Veng Sereyvuth of the Ministry of Tourism, the ship moored on the Tongle Bassac River and linked via a walkway to the Sofitel Cambodiana Hotel is expected to attract half a million visitors in 1995. The casino will be featured as a prime promotional stratagem.
The government recently modified cumbersome immigration procedures. A “no entry visa” policy for visitation rights of up to fourteen days seems to be a positive step forward in attracting visitors. Visas for longer terms can be obtained from Cambodian embassies abroad or simply at The Pochentong International Airport upon arrival. Visitors have to pay a fee for the visas. The face amount will be not as much as the figure quoted by the officials, who might possibly ask for some “coffee” money for their efforts in speeding up your application at the immigration counter. Although the government is examining laws aimed at attacking corruption problems in the kingdom, it is suspected that there will be resistance to eradicating this problem. As the First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh states “the low salaries of civil servants have contributed to the spread of corruption.” Unless the living standard of the country is improved, mere legislation will be ineffective in solving the problem.
Currency, Credit Cards, and Travelers Checks
High inflation rates have caused the local currency the Riel to clash with credit cards and traveler’s checks. According to United Nations’ economists, the annual inflation rate reached a high of 340% in March 1993. This was due in large part to the Phnom Penh government printing new banknote to pay civil servants; without considering the impact on the economy. The political instability of the government and lack of confidence caused the Riel to be devalued. The exchange rate plummeted from 550 Riel per US dollar in late 1991, to 4,500 Riel per US dollar by mid-1993. A further adjustment in 1995, corrected the exchange rate to 2,300 Riel to one US dollar. The massive fluctuations in currency have caused detrimental effects to the Cambodian economy. The Riel is rarely used by visitors. Instead, the US dollar is almost the only currency utilized by foreign visitors. Whether it is a bottle of Coca Cola purchased at a street stall or a meal in a local restaurant, the US dollar is the currency of choice and is the one that is anticipated.
Credit cards are rarely accepted in hotels or guest houses, except in some of the top hotels and casinos. There are no foreign banks in Cambodia; even travelers checks are difficult to cash, despite the high surcharges imposed by the various businesses that offer the service. Therefore, visitors are forced to bring hard cash with them; this is neither practical, convenient, or safe.
Tourism Education and Training
The Cambodian authorities are expecting a boom in tourism business in the near future in spite of the unfavorable factors that seem to prohibit tourism from full development throughout the country. These are categorized as an unstable political environment, high crime rates, and the existence of Khmer Rough guerrillas who still attack tourists and others. The government is working hard to attract visitors to the country, while there is a serious shortage of skillful and knowledgeable employees in the tourism and hotel service industries. Almost all of the management level positions are occupied by expatriates from Singapore or Thailand. In order to cultivate tourism business there is, as elsewhere in Indochina, a need for an integrated tourism and hospitality management training/education program. Currently, neither hospitality technical colleges nor vocational training schools are being operated in Cambodia. Training, if any, is conducted in-house by hotel management; the scope, range, content, and course structure is not as sophisticated as the regimen required in an academic setting. These instructional efforts seldom correspond with individual needs. Worst of all, the majority of the hotel staff will not benefit from the training at all.
Although the Ministry of Tourism has started its own training program for hotel workers, tourist guides, and those involved in marketing and promotions, the scale is small and the course structure, as well as content is limited. To date, 714 people have undergone training under the ministry’s scheme. Yet, a kingdom that attracts more than 150,000 visitors per year urgently needs more professional people to help cope with the demand.
Safety and Security
One of the main reasons that tourism in Cambodia remains sluggish is a concern for personal safety and security. According to a Fielding’s Guide to the World’s Most Dangerous Places, Cambodia received a 5-star rating -- juxtaposing Rwanda and Burundi. The remnants of the Khmer Rouge still control certain areas of the country. In April, 1994, three tourists were kidnapped and executed by Khmer Rouge guerrillas. On July 5, 1996, a French woman was raped and three of her companions robbed in Phnom Penh. According to one report, at least 70 foreigners were robbed, shot at, or shot between May, 1996, and December, 1996. Petty theft prevails in the cities where tourists are afraid to go out after dark. Cambodia is also considered as a favorite shelter for fugitives from justice -- drug traffickers and criminals who take advantage of a lax legal system and an ineffective police force. Besides, it is estimated that there are more than seven million mines buried throughout the country in hidden obscurity. According to one local estimate, some 120 Cambodians are killed or maimed by mines each month.
Much of the Cambodian national heritage suffered irreversible damage from the war, civil strife, and robbery. The historic sites were plundered and robbed which resulted in the loss of priceless irreplaceable artifacts. Even the Ministry of Culture admits that opening the monuments to tourism places them at risk to theft, and the country has no resources to protect this heritage. Corruption is so serious that foreign smuggling syndicates are ably assisted by officials. Meanwhile amidst the poverty, local civilians are willing to play part in smuggling activities, especially when they see that food is so much more important than a stony artifact. The impact from losing historic treasures is enormous particularly to the tourism industry. It is imperative that the government take steps to deter further damage from smuggling.
Destination Facilities and Services
The lack of adequate lodging accommodations in Cambodia presents a big barrier for tourism development. Although travelers can always get a room in the cities, good quality lodging services are do not meet current demand. There are only two 5-star hotels in the country, the Cambodian and the Floating Hotel. Additionally, room rates for quality hotels are expensive and continue to climb as demand grows.
There are about 88 small-to-medium-sized hotels graded 3-stars or below; actually, there are no official standards for hotel classifications in Cambodia for potential tourists’ reference. The majority of the hotels in Cambodia provide only standard lodging facilities and food services for local and business travelers. The quality of services and prices vary significantly from US $3 per room per night to over US $170 per room per night.
Food and beverage facilities is another major concern to address. A variety of different cuisine are available in the urban areas of the cities. In suburban areas and the provinces only traditional Cambodian dishes are available however. To the palate Cambodian food tastes somewhat like a cross between Thai and Vietnamese food. The hot humid climate influences the plethora of hot and spicy flavors. The bounty of traditional foodstuffs can be too spicy for unwary foreigners. Furthermore, personal hygiene practices of food servers and preparation experts, the serving environment, and the proper sanitation of the serving and preparation utensils are major concern to many Western visitors. Malaria, rabies, hepatitis, and many other tropical diseases are potential threats that keep tourists away. According to local intelligence reports, there is new strain of malaria which is resistant to all present types of malaria fighting drugs available in Cambodia.
As far as entertainment goes, Cambodia boasts a variety of nightlife in Phnom Penh. There are hundreds of karaoke, discos, bars, saunas, and night clubs. Although prostitution is illegal, it is very common and is a point of merit between competing neighboring countries. There are also various forms of cultural entertainment such as the classical dance “Lamthon,” classical music, traditional orchestras, folk dances, and the famous shadow plays. Folk and traditional arts for the royal family have received additional attention and support from the government recently. All these types of performance arts are available at local festivals or sometimes in hotels by special request.
Although the country’s cultural heritage has a long and glorious history, the basic form is much like that of Thailand and Vietnam. Because of the long exhausting civil war, sporting events and sports in general were brought to a stand still. Almost all the recreational facilities were destroyed and there are few opportunities for sports outings in Cambodia. There is a sports complex at Phnom Penh with a swimming pool, boxing gymnasium, and volleyball facilities. For recreational facilities Cambodia compared to her competitive counterparts such as Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and other Asian countries is in an inferior position. However, the southern bay area, the eastern highland, and the 23 National Parks provide a good foundation for future development of ecotourism and sports like rafting, mountain trekking, and rain forest adventures tours.
Several casinos were granted licenses to operate last year. They are run by Malaysian entrepreneurs and target specific Asian markets like Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. In addition to the government authorized casinos, there are many illegal operations found in the cities. They also play a critical part in the current tourism industry.
Shopping facilities ideal for tourist browsing is commonly available in city areas. Small individual outlets are concentrated around the centers of the cities. The Central Market at Phnom Penh, for instance, has became a major tourist attraction. Large malls, arcades, and department stores, however, are not available. Shopping in Cambodia involves an element of good-natured bargaining. Normally, travelers can get further discounts for as much as 30% off the original prices; bargaining has become a form of entertainment for tourists. Silverware, wooden and ivory sculpture, pottery, textiles, and other traditional handicrafts represent the typical shopping attractions; jewelry, especially ruby and sapphire, are also popular buys. Tourists, however, can hardly distinguish Cambodian handicrafts from those produced by the Thai’s.
There are a number of different modes of travel within the country. Air is the most common and advisable way to travel for tourists. There are regular flights between the favorite tourist destinations of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Battambang, Sihanovkville, Koh Kong, Kratie, Stung Treng, and Kompong Cham and irregular flights to other parts of the country are also available. Fares are cheap! Traveling by train is not a good option for tourists. The rail system is aged, poorly constructed, and maintenance systems are, at best, poor.
Furthermore, a significant portion of the rail network was destroyed during the war. Buses and shared taxis are common means for local transportation. Their services, however, are far from reliable, since most of the roads in the country are not surfaced, it is certainly not a pleasant experience to travel long distances in motor vehicles. Unexploded mines, road-blocks by armed thugs, and chance encounters with bandits combine to make ground or surface travel less than desirable. Taxi service is very limited in Cambodia. Tourists have other options such as rental cars, motorcycles, and bicycles which are available at very reasonable prices. Rain is another problem that travelers face when traveling by ground transportation.
During the rainy season May until October, a southwest monsoon brings heavy rainfall to the entire country. The Mekong River floods and the Tonle Sap doubles in size; roads are blocked or even destroyed by the heavy rainfall, and flooding is all too common because of the poor sewage system.
Accessibility to Cambodia
Although it is possible for tourists to enter the country by ferry, bus, or shared taxi, it is advisable to travel by air. As mentioned earlier, traveling through the country is neither comfortable nor safe; the train is not available to foreigners. All international flights arrive at The Pochentong International Airport in Phnom Penh. The airfare to and from nearby countries such as Thailand and Vietnam is reasonable, therefore there is an opportunity to promote stop-over travel agendas.
Communications with the outside world is possible via international call and fax. These are only available in a few hotels however. Satellite TV signals feature CNN and the BBC broadcasting international news are found in almost all hotels. Foreign language newspapers, on the other hand, are very limited. The official language of Cambodia is Khmer -- developed from imported words and characters of Pali and Sanskrit which are the classical languages of India. It is grammatically easy to assimilate since there are no tenses or wording differentiation based on gender. Nonetheless, thanks to a rich religious and historical background, monks and the royal family have a different set of verbs. Although the local citizens do not speak many foreign languages, French is still common in the big cities. Lately the Cambodian government has placed an additional emphasis on learning English in order to promote economic reforms.
Those who know the real Cambodia believe that Cambodia has an excellent opportunity and potential for tourism development.
There are, however, a number of crucial problems that need to be addressed before further development plans are pursued. Evidence of political stability, programs aimed at tourist safety and security issues, cultural/historical preservation tactics, the continued development of tourist attractions, and the construction of adequate infrastructure systems are some of the most pressing items that must be addressed. Topping the authors’ short list is: 1) a well-structured development plan incorporating a clear concise mission statement, 2) a well defined target market, and 3) a realistic action plan which is supported whole-heartily by the government and private business are what Cambodia really needs. Repositioning the country and her image is also critical. As a result of a focus group survey, the authors discovered that Cambodia is still perceived as a dangerous place to travel with a lack of tourist attractions; a well coordinated promotional plan can help remedy this situation. Currently, the Ministry of Tourism is responsible for promoting tourism, but this department severely lacks the necessary financial support to function at optimum capability. The formation of a strategic consortium would be beneficial in further implementing tourism development. As mention earlier, the Greater Mekong Sub-region Tourism Committee is an initial step for the countries in this region to pool their resources and influence for mutual benefit.
Though the results of this study provided a number of initiatives for future research, only a few merit mentioning here. One study would involve measuring consumers’ perceptions regarding a visit to Cambodia and the accompanying barriers that they encounter while making their decisions. A second research project would focus on the impact of tourism development on the economy of Cambodia. The third study would consider the ramifications of extended tourism operations upon the natural environment. The final study would feature the current tourism attractions of Cambodia and what role they play in meeting tourists’ expectations.
Cooper, C. (1996). “Rolling on the river.” Incentive, 170 (2): pp. 100-102.
“The yellow man’s burden: Western group wants an undeveloped Cambodia,” Far East Economic Review, August 31, 1995: p. 5.
Ministry of Interior and Civil Aviation Authority (1995). Statistical Report on Civil Aviation.
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