Plans for a Travel Bubble Bring Wary Optimism to Tourism Sector

4 min read
Siem Reap’s popular tourist area, Pub Street, in 2014 (Michael Coghlan)

Cambodian tourism business owners expressed cautious optimism over the prime minister’s plans to entice foreign travelers back into the country and resuscitate the sector’s fortunes.

Guesthouse, hotel and tourism operators say they see a glimmer of hope — in what has been a devastating 18 months during the Covid-19 pandemic — in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s suggestion last week to reduce quarantine requirements to seven days and to allow tourists free movement within a tourism bubble.

Speaking at a vaccination event for 6- to 11-year-olds, Hun Sen said Siem Reap could be used to create a bubble where fully vaccinated people can quarantine for seven days, will not be confined to their hotel rooms and were free to move within the city and visit Angkorian temples. 

“We allow them to have a large quarantine area, within which they can still see the temples. The same is true in Sihanoukville. While in quarantine, they can go to the sea to swim or tour the islands,” Hun Sen said according to a transcript posted on his official website.

“Please think about it so that we will be able to get tourism back on track,” he added.

This model, if adopted by the government, would be similar to Thailand’s Phuket sandbox pilot project, which allows fully vaccinated tourists to quarantine for 14 days at an accredited hotel, permits them to move freely around the island and mingle with others, and after two weeks they can enter other parts of the country.

Immediately, Tourism Minister Thong Khon instructed airlines to prepare for incoming passengers and also indicated that quarantine would be dropped from 14 days in a hotel room to seven days, according to a post on the ministry’s official Facebook page. He did not indicate when the new quarantine rules would be implemented.

“The Ministry of Tourism has already prepared a strategic plan document about the opening of safe tourism with Covid-19 and also submitted it to the government for inspection and approval,” the post said.

The announcement comes as Siem Reap has for a second week placed communes and villages in red zones, which restricts almost all movement and business activity in the designated areas.

Hak Touch runs a guesthouse in Siem Reap’s Phsar Krom in Svay Dangkum commune. The business owner had over 100 employees at six guesthouses in the temple city. Eighteen months after Covid-19 cases started to increase in March 2020, Touch has retained no more than 10 staff and closed down all but one guesthouse.

“Whenever tourism happens we will have hope because now tourism is dead. … Even for me as a business owner, I almost cannot breathe at the moment,” he said. 

Angkor Wat has seen a dramatic drop in footfalls since the onset of the pandemic. There was a 99 percent drop in ticket sales for the first six months of this year compared to last year, with domestic tourism unable to fill in the massive void.

Top Sopheak, spokesperson for the Ministry of Tourism, could not confirm exactly when international tourists would return.

“The ministry is working on this and it could be soon but I can’t say clearly when. The government will decide,” Sopheak said.

He said the hope was that domestic tourism would pick up during the Pchum Ben holidays next week even though some parts of the country were seeing higher Covid-19 transmission.

Cambodia has seen an uptick in Covid-19 cases in the past month, logging more than 800 cases in each of the last three days. The country has a high vaccination rate with close to 11 million of the country’s more than 16 million population fully vaccinated, though deaths have also ticked up in recent days.

The establishment of a Siem Reap or Sihanoukville travel bubble and the return of international tourists could have positive impacts on tourism destinations in the country.

Chea Nak sells souvenirs in Mondulkiri’s Sen Monorom town and is eagerly awaiting the return of foriegn tourists to the hilly province.

“There is not much support from local tourists because they aren’t interested but I get more support from international visitors,” he said. “I wish for our country to return to normalcy.”

Chhuo Davy, a receptionist at a guesthouse in Kampot province, said the business was able to get reservations from domestic tourists but an influx of international visitors would be welcome.

“We have been waiting for a long time and when I heard [the government] announced that, I was happy,” Davy said, referring to the new quarantine policy.

Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents, said tourists normally plan their trips to Cambodia three to four months prior to traveling here. And it was already nearing the normal start of the peak season, from December to February.

Once the government officially announced the new policy, local travel agents would inform their international counterparts to resume bookings, she said.

Sivlin added that there would be some challenges to reopening tourism businesses, including the loss of tourism workers.

“They looked for other jobs that are not in their skillset. They go to work as construction workers, in agriculture, selling property and selling vegetables,” she said. Business owners were also making losses that would make it hard to reopen, Sivlin said.

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