Cambodia to Open ‘Sand-Box’ Destinations for Int’l Tourists in November

5 min read
Sihanoukville in October 2020. (Ananth Baliga/VOD)

In Cambodia’s latest step toward reopening to international tourism, the country will begin its own ‘sand-box’ program next month in three pre-approved destinations.

The program will begin November 30, according to a Tuesday announcement from the Ministry of Tourism, and will allow vaccinated international travelers to avoid hotel quarantine by instead spending five days in a pre-approved location. The first set of locations include the city of Sihanoukville, Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem off that city’s coast, and the secluded Dara Sakor tourism area in Koh Kong province

Siem Reap province, which is typically the country’s leading travel destination, is not yet part of the Tourism Ministry’s “vaccine tour” program but will be included with other destinations in early 2022 as the country reopens further.

Tourism Minister Thong Khon stated in the Tuesday release that incoming tourists must take a COVID-19 PCR test upon arrival at any of the three approved destinations. 

“In case of negative results, tourists can travel freely in the area or safe tourism destination,” Khon stated. “All tourism businesses are inspected in accordance with the standard operating procedures and tourism safety rules in advance.”

Travelers must remain within the bounds of the destination for their first five days in the country, the release stated. On the final day of that period, tourists are tested again for COVID and, as long as that test returns negative, they’ll be permitted to move on and tour the rest of Cambodia.

The ministry stated that a later phase of the newly announced program will see the local quarantine period reduced to three days and, eventually, dropped altogether.

For now, guests are also required to meet previously set entry conditions, such as having a COVID-19 health certificate with a negative test result issued no more than 72 hours before departure from their point of origin. Travelers are also still required to buy health insurance to cover possible medical treatment before flying to Cambodia.

The Tuesday announcement of the expanded tourism program came after Cambodia moved to allow the resumption of direct flights from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Before that, Prime Minister Hun Sen had ordered the reopening of the country to air passengers from Thailand without a quarantine requirement.

Chhean Sochetra, sales manager at the Moonlight Resort on Koh Rong Sanloem, a small, popular tourism island near the larger Koh Rong, expects the number of international tourists visiting Sihanoukville to increase slightly by the year’s end due to the government push to reopen the sector.

Sochetra said the nearly two-year-long pandemic has caused the resort to lose money nearly every month just to cover expenses. However, he said he continues to promote travel packages for international guests online and through travel agencies as usual, without yet preparing any special packages.

“I am waiting to see the actual situation and ask for suggestions from upper levels. Now, we are still selling normally, waiting to see if there are a few more customers, and then we will prepare service packages or other promotions for our new customers, to serve European guests.”

Mao El, general manager at the Mafiya Resort on Koh Rong, said he was pleased with the latest step toward reopening. Even though most of his guests are locals, he believed the normalization of international tourism would encourage more traffic as a whole to Sihanoukville.

Ahead of the start of the vaccine tour program, El said his resort has implemented safety measures as recommended by the ministries of health and tourism, accepting only vaccinated domestic tourists and ensuring all staff are fully inoculated as well. 

“Most of my guests are mostly locals and we also have some Chinese guests, old ones, who often come to rent,” he said. “But we still expect to have better guests by the end of the year or early 2022.”

He’s not alone in planning ahead for an anticipated flow in new arrivals.

Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents, believes this is the time for Cambodia to prepare itself to receive international guests, pointing out the country had successfully rolled out one of ASEAN’s widest vaccination programs, second only to Singapore. 

According to the government, around 85 percent of people in the country had received at least one Covid-19 vaccine shot.

Sivlin explained that local tour operators have begun to develop promotional strategies and travel packages to attract international visitors from different regions and nationalities.

These tasks require some time to be able to succeed, she added, because international tourists are different from guests who wish to come to Cambodia to do business or to visit relatives.

“For tourists, they have to have a plan,” she said. “They have to look at the details and look at the tour package as well as the tour line, whether they like it or not, and there will be inquiries for at least a month before they decide.”

Sivlin said beginning with the three destinations is a good start before expanding to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and other locations where international tourism had been virtually eliminated by the pandemic.

However, she urged the relevant parties to facilitate the testing process for guests to ensure it is done as quickly and smoothly as possible. She also hoped to see domestic airlines help to provide transit flights between arrivals at the Phnom Penh International Airport to the Sihanoukville or Koh Kong airports, which provide limited services from abroad.

Sin Chansereivutha, spokesperson of State Secretariat of Civil Aviation, said these domestic flights have been permitted throughout the pandemic but were suspended by airlines due to a lack of passengers.

“The flights will be renewed automatically if there are actual demands,” he said.

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