Beleaguered by widespread closures and job losses, Cambodia’s tourism industry enjoyed a small bump last month from a surge in domestic travel, a welcome reprieve amid an outlook that remains dim.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shut down global travel, causing the country’s tourism to plunge. Foreign ticket sales at its premier attraction — Angkor Archaeological Park — fell 99 percent year-on-year in July.
Tith Chantha, secretary of state at the Tourism Ministry, told a press conference on Thursday that August had been a bright spot: The weeklong Khmer New Year holiday — rescheduled from April due to Covid-19 — ignited local travel and the reopening of as much as 30 percent of hospitality businesses.
“When we first faced the very serious crisis in March, April … hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and tourist services, nearly 90 percent of them suspended or shut down their activities to prevent the Covid pandemic and because there were no local or international tourists,” Chantha said.
International tourism remained nonexistent, but “local tourism has improved for hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, and about 30 percent has reopened across the country.” Others were also preparing to reopen, and about 100,000 workers had returned to work, he said.
During the August holiday, 1.5 million people engaged in domestic tourism, injecting $100 million into the economy, he said.
Industry and labor acknowledged there was a surge, but did not share Chantha’s optimism or accounting.
Clais Chenda, president of the Cambodia Hotel Association, said the holiday had been “a small help,” and people working at hotels and restaurants were happy.
“[Visitors] stayed in hotels and ate at restaurants. It helped a part of the tourist sector,” Chenda said.
But “the festival isn’t every day,” and “five days can’t replace five or six months,” she said.
She said 30 percent of tourism businesses may have reopened, but estimated the jobs recovery to be far lower than 100,000.
“It helped about 5,000 people,” Chenda said.
Touch Kosal, president of the Cambodia Tourism Workers Union Federation, said there indeed had been an increase in August.
However, “people are still worried and scared of Covid, and workers still don’t have work to do,” Kosal said. “They continue to suffer difficulties in their living conditions.”
“Hotels, guesthouses and restaurants continue to cut staff, and we don’t have many tourists coming to stay yet. I don’t think that 30 percent of hospitality [businesses] have reopened. … The majority of [workers] still have no jobs. It is about 85 to 90 percent who have no work.”
Le Meridien Angkor general manager Sabreena Jacob said the five-star Siem Reap hotel had been among the first international hotels to reopen in the city in July, hoping this would bring a “lively atmosphere back to town and would encourage people to start traveling again.”
The business had seen a “surge” in the domestic travel market — especially in August. But demand during the upcoming Pchum Ben holidays in mid-September “may not be the same,” she cautioned.
Cambodian guests were looking to experience luxury at the current “affordable” rates, and corporate trips, meetings and banqueting were also slowly picking up, she said. But combined revenue and occupancy would still take “some time” to recover.
The hotel, part of Marriott International, has also been embroiled in a prominent labor dispute as a result of the sector’s downturn, with Jacob saying earlier this week that the hotel adjusted its operational requirements as a result of “difficult times” across the industry. It introduced tiered salary reductions and a voluntary resignation package following consultations between ownership, management and the hotel’s union representative, she said in a statement.
However, three employees had organized “illegal strikes” at the hotel, she said.
The Tourism Workers’ Union of Le Meridien Angkor Hotel has staged protests over the firings of those three workers, saying that they were union activists who had pushed for a lesser salary reduction. New York-based Human Rights Watch has expressed support for the workers, with deputy Asia director Phil Robertson accusing the company of “union busting tactics” and “worker rights abuses” in firing the three employees.
The year has been brutal for tourism. For the first six months of the year, local tourist visits around the country declined 50 percent and foreigner visits by 62 percent compared to the same period in 2019, according to Tourism Ministry statistics.
For June alone, the declines were 41 percent for local tourists and 96 percent for foreign visitors.
Among local tourists, Siem Reap’s Angkor park and Preah Sihanouk saw the biggest drop in domestic visitors at 99 percent and 81 percent, respectively. Total local visitors to the coastal zone and those to eco-tourism zones fared better, falling only 4 and 21 percent.
Additional reporting by Michael Dickison and Khut Sokun