China is scrapping its travel bans starting Sunday, and Cambodia’s tourism industry is looking ahead to a return to the brisk trade seen pre-pandemic.
The arrival of large group tours again will not be immediate — and a full return could still take years — but services will already need to start preparing to cater to them, those in the industry say.
Transportation links as well as Chinese-language staffing for cultural tours, boat tours and souvenir sales will need to be built up again as travelers return, said Cambodia Association of Travel Agents president Chhay Sivlin.
“Only if we return back together can we receive Chinese tourists because Chinese tourists need many services,” Sivlin said.
China had maintained strict zero-Covid measures since early 2020 even as the rest of the world began to reopen last year. But mass protests forced an abrupt U-turn in policy, and starting Sunday, China is scrapping testing requirements for travelers. Reuters reported that Chinese people have been flocking to travel websites to book trips after three long years of restrictions.
Sivlin said she had begun reaching out to travel agents that formerly worked with Chinese clients to get preparations underway.
Families were likely to return first, while large group tours would take more time to come back, she said.
“We need Chinese tourists [to come] to Cambodia to restore the economy,” she said, adding it could be three to four years before a full return.
Cambodian Tourism and Services Workers Federation president Morm Rithy said Siem Reap tourism had been stagnant without Chinese travelers.
Travel to the temple town has been mostly driven by domestic tourists visiting on holidays and some weekends, and as a result many hotels were still only partially open, Rithy said.
Official statistics have backed up Rithy’s view, showing Siem Reap lagging even as international visitors began to return last year.
Rithy also called for caution around Covid-19, as China’s sudden reopening has led to reports of a swift outbreak. Europe, Japan and the U.S. have imposed Covid-19 tests for incoming Chinese visitors.
“I am not against being open to welcome Chinese guests, but the important thing is there need to be proper health measures. … If there are no proper health measures, I think that there is a high risk.”
Cambodian officials in recent days have talked up the return of tourism, pushing for 7 million international arrivals by 2025.
On Monday, during a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a bridge across Mekong river in Kratie province, Prime Minister Hun Sen said Cambodia would welcome Chinese tourists even as some countries continued to impose restrictions.
“Whatever anyone wants to do, it is the right of those countries, but Cambodia would like to invite Chinese people and Chinese tourists to come to Cambodia,” Hun Sen said, hoping for a return to 2 million annual Chinese visitors pre-pandemic.
“I hope Chinese tourists will head straight for Cambodia,” he said.
The Tourism Ministry issued a statement Thursday noting how Chinese visitors accounted for 36% of total visitors in 2019, bringing in $1.8 billion out of $5 billion in tourism revenues.
“With the return of Chinese tourists, Cambodia expects to receive about 7 million international tourists in 2025,” it said. Total international arrivals reached 6.6 million in 2019, according to the statement.
Tourism Ministry spokesperson Top Sopheak suggested a gradual return, however, estimating 300,000-500,000 Chinese visitors this year, up from 100,000 last year.
Overall, however, the number of arrivals had already jumped from around 700-800 per day last year to 2,000-2,500 daily in late December and this month, he said.
“We are ready to welcome Chinese tourists in hospitality, accommodations, dining and transportation services. All is in line with our strategic plan called China-ready.”
Siem Reap provincial deputy governor Ly Samreth noted the construction of more than 100 km of roads in his city during the Covid-19 lull, and said the province was ready.
But there would be no rush on Sunday, but a gradual return to business, he predicted.