The stated aim of the ASEAN Tourism Forum held this week in Phnom Penh may be to promote the bloc as a “multi-faceted single destination”, but in reality Southeast Asia’s national tourism industries are in direct competition.
Long-term tourism industry growth in Cambodia will not be determined by the level of cooperation the country generates with its neighbours. By contrast, significant progress depends on the extent to which the industry can keep tourists in the country and away from other ASEAN destinations, while also luring nationals living elsewhere in the bloc away from their home countries.
Although joining forces on marketing and package tours offers money-making opportunities for the ASEAN tourism sector this is where cooperation ends. Ask any domestic tour operator what Cambodian tourism needs to do to develop and the answer is almost always to diversify the number of attractions here to prevent travellers and their dollars escaping to other destinations in the region.
Although official data shows Cambodia has in recent years managed to hold onto tourists a little longer – the average stay was just 5.2 days in 1998 compared to 6.45 days in 2010 – still foreign visitors here rarely venture outside of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Much of the current dissatisfaction within the industry at the lack of flights to Sihanoukville’s newly renovated airport is based on data that shows visitors to Angkor Wat are also usually looking to hit the beach – currently most head to Phuket, Pattaya or Ko Samui. Sihanoukville remains off flight schedules and therefore mostly off the radar for many foreign tourists meaning Cambodia is effectively hemorrhaging tourism dollars to Thailand.
And because Cambodia still has limited international flight connections and no intercontinental flights to key markets in Europe and North America, tourists are given every reason to combine trips to Cambodia with Thailand and Vietnam.
When the Kingdom was considered a fringe destination in the past, it was useful to piggy-back on the tourism success of the likes of Thailand. But to develop into a major destination in its own right Cambodia needs to establish itself apart from the rest of the region. That means developing infrastructure to offer greater choice and ease of travel within the country to keep travellers here.
Industry cooperation at this week’s ATF will help generate new itineraries, opportunities and business for Cambodia’s travel industry. But as Thailand will testify, you don’t become a major worldwide tourism destination by focusing on collaboration.
The key is giving every segment of the market from young families to the elderly – whether budget or luxury travellers – every excuse not to go anywhere else, and ideally reason to come again next year. This remains Cambodia’s main tourism goal.