We are less than four weeks away from the tourist high season in Southeast Asia, and Cambodia is optimistic that it will continue its growing boom as an international destination. The government expects an increase of 15 percent in foreign visitors – about 3 million persons entering the “Kingdom of Wonder,“ as it is called in the official tourist promotional materials. Gone is the time when Cambodia was viewed as a black stain on the Indochina peninsula, avoided by tourists flying over the mysterious country on flights between Bangkok and Saigon.
The tourist development has been a progressive process. In the beginning, foreign visitors came only to Siem Reap Province to see the temples in a quiet town that was then without nightlife. Phnom Penh soon also began to draw crowds, and the city developed its infrastructure and now has many attractions.
Cambodia became in the span of a few years a country for either backpackers or more exclusive visitors. Some of its small main towns began to resemble authentic cities: Battambang, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville; casinos were built at its borders as guardians, becoming a direct form of foreign investment and job generators. The natural but largely unexplored Cambodian beaches and islands got the attention of national and foreign investors to create luxury resorts and nightlife venues.
The best part of Cambodia is its people. Many foreigners started to settle in the country, not those of NGOs or workers of international agencies, but the most diverse kind of persons from the five continents, who became especially keen to live in the main Cambodian urban areas. One wonders why a European would want to settle in a country like Cambodia and many would answer that they fall in love with the country, its people, their culture, their way of being.
Every year, between November and April, the number of visitors seems to increase and it becomes the spring time of hotels, restaurants, tuk-tuks, casinos, archaeological sites, tourist agencies and business in general. During the tourist high season (THS) 2011-2012, the Ministry of Tourism reported the entrance of 2.88 million foreigners, first to Siem Reap Province and second to the Cambodian capital. It produced earnings of 1.9 billion US dollars, meaning the 12 % of the GDP.
Just to compare how tourism became one of the leading sectors of the Cambodian economy, 118,183 persons arrived to Cambodia in 1993 – it was the year when a new Cambodian constitution was being written and there was a stagnant economy. The number of entrances doubled in 1995 with 219,680 and it is easy to guess that most of them were humanitarian volunteers and workers. In 2000 we saw the second big increase with 466,365 and we are already at the start of an economic rehabilitation: 2004 with 1,055,202, then 2007 with 2,015,128 and last year with 2,881,862, so we expect more than 3 million this time time around.
During the first quarter of 2012, the Ministry of Tourism reported that most visitors – 51.6% (905,773 persons) – to Cambodia arrived by land and water ways and it is thanks to the improvement of land transport connections with Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. The second way was by plane to the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap international airports (850,879 persons, 48.4 %).
Although many Cambodians prepare for European visitors, in reality it is Vietnam that is the number one provider of tourists for the Kingdom with a share of 21.5 % during the first quarter of this year. The second tourist provider was South Korea (12.9%), followed by China (8.6 %), Laos (5.9%) and Thailand (5.2%), which fluctuates according to the political tensions among the countries. In conclusion, Asians are the first tourists and US citizens made the 6th group of visitors during the first six months of the year (5.2 %), followed by another Japan (4.9%), France (3.4%), Australia (3.3%) and the U.K. (3.3%).
Tourism stimulates the economy, of course, creating hundreds of job positions for the growing young Cambodian population. It includes the development of infrastructures and a more universal mentality as soon as Cambodians meet with people from very far cultures. But we see the construction of hotels and resorts to prepare for foreign visitors, though there is still a lack of development in other conditions in the country. There is still much to do in education – there is a very reduced number of public universities and most of them centered in the capital. Public health attention continues to be poor in a general view and poverty stays out of the look of tourists passing through the wonderful tourism path.