The Royal Government of Cambodia has acknowledged the potential of the tourism industry as a source of Cambodia’s socio-economy growth, including job creation and poverty reduction. Tourism has been considered one of Cambodia’s key economic pillars, both international and domestic. In the early 2000s, the top foreign tourists to Cambodia were westerners from the United States, United Kingdom, and France.1 Chinese tourists have topped the 2019 Cambodia arrival list accounting for 2.36 million visitors.2 It shows an 18 percent increase from 2018. Chinese tourists remain at the top for 2020, followed by Thailand and Vietnam.3 Other tourist arrivals are from the United States, the Republic of Korea, Japan, France, and Chinese Taipei.4 For outbound departure, Cambodia has traveled the most to Thailand (42 percent), Vietnam (30 percent), Taiwan (12 percent), China (5 percent), Malaysia (4 percent), and the rest of the world (7 percent) in 2019.5
In 2019, there were approximately 11.3 million domestic and 6.61 million international tourists.6 In 2022, Cambodia recorded 2.2 million international visitors, an 11 percent increase from the previous year.7 International tourist revenue shared of Cambodia’s GDP was 9.44 percent in 2000. 8 The number increased to 19.61 percent in 2019.9 International tourist receipts are equivalent to 228 million USD in 2000 and 4,919 million USD in 2019.10 However, the number dropped significantly in 2020 as the world was hit with COVID-19’s quarantine and travel restrictions. In 2020, international tourist receipts dropped threefold from the previous year to around 1,023 million USD.11
Tourism directly employed 630,000 workers, of which 60 percent were women in 2019.12 The sector is only second to the garment sector with the largest number of women employed. In terms of hotels and accommodation, as of 2020, a total of 1,028 hotels provide 44,428 rooms residing in 25 provinces across Cambodia.13 Another accommodation type is the guesthouse, in which 2,755 units are divided into 35,791 rooms are available for tourists.14 As the tourism industry grows and demand for accommodation spike over the year, the number of hotels and guesthouses also increase. In 1998, there were only 216 hotels and 147 guesthouses. It shows a growth rate of 386 percent and 1.740 percent for hotels and guesthouses, respectively.15
Cambodia’s top tourist destination is the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap. The park covers 400 square kilometers and consists of forest areas and many ancient temples. It is home to Angkor Wat temple, the largest religious temple in the world. The temple was listed as UNESCO World Heritage in 1992.16 Angkor Wat and other temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park have generated millions of dollars and attracted millions of local and international travelers each year. In 2019, Angkor Wat attracted approximately 2.2 million international tourists generating 99 million USD in revenue through ticket sales.17 Other tourist’s popular destinations are coastal areas (Preah Sihanouk, Koh Rong, Kep, Koh Kong, and Kampot), mountain areas (Battambang, Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri, Pursat), and ecotourism that spread out across the countries.
Ecotourism and Communities-Based Ecotourism (CBET) in Cambodia
The United Nations World Tourism Organization defines ecotourism as “all nature-based forms of tourism in which the main motivation of visitors is the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas.”18 While communities based ecotourism involves the local communities’ participation and natural resource management, who will gain direct benefits through ecotourism activities in their areas.19 As communities-based ecotourism generate profit for the local, it also preserves the natural resources and environments. For a country with rich natural landscapes and attractions, Cambodia has the potential for ecotourism development.20
In the last decades, ecotourism has experienced rapid growth. The main reason for the change is the government’s prioritization of diversifying the sector and the need for sustainable tourism. In 2017, the interministerial ecotourism task force was formed to manage and develop potential communities based tourism in Cambodia.21 In addition, in 2021, based on the success of the interministerial task force, the National Committee for Management and Development of Community-Based Tourism and Ecotourism (NCDCBE) was established.22
As of 2019, the Ministry of Tourism stated that there are around 266 ecotourism sites, 13 of which are community base ecotourism operating across Cambodia.23 In 2019, ecotourism shared 16 percent of the total tourist visit in Cambodia.24 The number has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic as the demand for domestic tourism increased due to international travel restrictions. In 2022, The Ministry of Environment approved 307 small-scale ecotourism projects, which shows a hike in ecotourism demand in the past few years.25 Also, the Ministry of Agriculture has identified 131 agricultural communities that have the potential to convert into communities-based ecotourism that can improve the local’s living standard.26
In collaborating with the World Bank, the Ministry of Environment implemented the Sustainable Landscape and Ecotourism Project (CSLEP) in 2019. The 50.66 million USD project aims to promote ecotourism and non-timber forest products in the Cardonmon mountain and Tonel Sap landscape, which they identified as potential areas for communities-based ecotourism development; namely, the Koh Kong province, Siem Reap province, and Phnom Aural protected area.27 Under the CLSEP project, various frameworks are published including the Process Framework of the Cambodia Sustainable Landscape and Ecotourism, Indigenous People Planning Framework of the Cambodia Sustainable Landscape and Ecotourism and Resettlement Policy Framework of the Cambodia Sustainable Landscape and Ecotourism.
Tourism in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic
Having tourism as one of their main source of revenue, Cambodia felt the impact of COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic, the tourism sector was drastically affected. The reason is mainly due to the travel restriction that prevents foreign tourists from traveling.28 Foreigners visiting Cambodia dropped significantly from 6.61 million in 2019 to 1.3 million visitors in 2020.29 It is estimated that Cambodia has lost 3 billion USD of tourism revenue to the COVID-19 pandemic.30
In 2020, Tourism-related employment decreased by 21.7 percent from the previous year.31 It was equivalent to 2.33 million in employment in 2019 to 1.82 million in 2020.32 As of September 2020, the Ministry of Tourism reported that about 3000 tourism-related businesses were closed or suspended.33 About 62 percent of the affected business were based in Siem reap, forcing nearly 15,000 workers out of jobs.34 Most suspended or laid-off workers turn to the agricultural sector to support their daily incomes.
The government has initiated various long and short-term recovery responses to retrieve the tourism industry. Those measures include tax/fee exemptions and cash support/loans for tourism-related businesses and enterprises, vaccination campaigns and capacity development for employees in the tourism sector, and infrastructure development. For instance, on February 2020, a policy on monthly tax exemption for all hotels and guesthouses in Siem Reap was issued. This tax exemption policy for tourism-related accommodation has been extended until March 2023. In addition, on May 2022, the government launched 150 million USD of the Tourism Recovery Co-financing Scheme (TRCS), which comes from the RGC’s contribution of 75 million USD through the Small and Medium Enterprise Bank of Cambodia (SME Bank) and Participating Financial Institutions (PFIs) contribution of 75 million USD. The enterprises in the tourism sector affected by the COVID-19 crisis can apply for loans from participating financial institutions that are partners of SME Bank at a concessional interest rate.
The government has implemented the Roadmap for Recovery of Cambodia tourism during and post COVID-19. The roadmap is a comprehensive guideline that aims to strengthen the tourism sector during the post-COVID-19, mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic, and promote Cambodia’s prestige and tourism as a safe destination for post-pandemic. The roadmap consists of three phases of recovery such as:
- Phase 1: Crisis management in the new normal phase and planning for recovery (2020-2021)
- Phase 2: Recovery of the tourism sector in Cambodia in the post-COVID (2022-2023)
- Phase 3: Preparation for the new future of the tourism sector in Cambodia (2024-2025).
Challenge and way forward
Despite gaining a large number of international tourists each year, Cambodia’s tourism sector still has room for improvement and to capitalize on the potential. The kingdom heavily depends on Angkor Wat as the main tourist attraction has made the country’s tourism sector vulnerable to external shock. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a reality test for Cambodia’s tourism sector. The travel restrictions and border closure negatively affect all tourism-related businesses, especially in tourism-driven provinces such as Siem Reap and Preah Sihanouk.
A limited selection of destinations is also a problem. Cambodia needs to diversify the tourism sector in order to keep the average length of tourists’ stay high. In 2018, the average length of stay of international tourists was seven days, one day shorter than in 1995.35 The longer stay usually means more spending, thus generating more revenue for the sector. Diversifying the tourism sector to more than just temple tours will attract tourists to stay longer as it offers more options for tourists to explore. The government has recognized ecotourism as a solution to diversify the tourism industry. In addition, the Strategic framework and programs for economic recovery and to promote Cambodia’s economic growth in living with COVID-19 in the new normal for 2021-2023 has identify areas for tourism diversification such as the coastal areas, northeastern regions, and natural landscapes such as Tonle sap, Mekong, and Bassac river.
Another issue associated with Cambodia’s tourism is poor infrastructure and limited transportation.36 Infrastructure and transportation in other areas besides popular international destinations are often poor quality and underdeveloped. Roads, network connectivity, electricity, clean water, and sanitation in remote tourist sites can be unsatisfactory.37 The establishment of the Master Plan for Siem Reap Tourism Development 2021-2035, Master Plan for Mondulkiri Tourism Development 2021-2035, the Phnom Penh-Sihanouk expressway, the new Siem Reap international airport are the government’s attempts to enhance and diversify the sector through infrastructure and connectivity development.
For 2023, Cambodia’s government has projected to receive four million international tourists, providing a positive aspect for a post-COVID-19 recovery in the tourism sector.38 This could generate 4 billion USD in revenue for the country.39
Related to Tourism
- 1. Peter Varga, “Angkor Wat: The Impact of Mass Tourism,” EHL insight, accessed January 2023.
- 2. Khmer Times Staff, “Chinese top tourist arrivals in 2019,” Khmer Times, February 2020, accessed January 2023.
- 3. Ministry of Tourism, “Tourism Statistic Report December 2020,” December 2020, accessed January 2023.
- 4. ibid.
- 5. World Travel Tourism Council, “2022 Annual Research: key highlights,” 2022, accessed January 2023.
- 6. Economic Diplomacy Coordinating Group, “Dashboard series about Cambodia,” Ministry of Foreign Affair and International Cooperation, November 2021, accessed January 2023.
- 7. Hin Pisei, “International visitors top 2.2M in 2022, lifting 2023 hopes,” The Phnom Penh Post, January 2023, accessed January 2023.
- 8. Global Economy, “Compare countries with annual data from official sources,” accessed January 2023.
- 9. ibid.
- 10. Ministry of Tourism, “Tourism Statistic Report February 2022,” February 2022, accessed January 2023.
- 11. ibid.
- 12. Asian Development Bank, “Sector Assessment Summary: Tourism in Cambodia,” Community-Based Tourism COVID-19 Recovery Project, January 2022, accessed January 2023.
- 13. Economic Diplomacy Coordinating Group, “Dashboard series about Cambodia,” Ministry of Foreign Affair and International Cooperation, November 2021, accessed January 2023.
- 14. ibid.
- 15. ibid.
- 16. UNESCO, “UNESCO statement on a reported construction project near the World Heritage site of Angkor in Cambodia,” February 2021, accessed January 2023.
- 17. Khmer Times Staff, “Cambodia’s famed Angkor sees more than 45,000 international tourists in first 5 months,” Khmer Times, June 2022, accessed January 2023.
- 18. United Nations World Tourism Organization, “Ecotourism and protect areas,” accessed January 2023.
- 19. Phe Siphannara, “Overview of community-based ecotourism for sustainable development in Cambodia,” September 2019, accessed January 2023.
- 20. OECD, “Structural policy country note: Cambodia,” Economic outlook for Southeast Asia, China India 2019: Towards smart urban transportation, December 2019, accessed January 2023.
- 21. Post Staff, “Hun Sen gives nod to creation of ecotourism task force,” November 2017, accessed January 2023.
- 22. Tin Sokhavuth, “Gov’t orders formation of NCDCBE to boost tourism sector,” October 2021, accessed January 2023.
- 23. Phe Siphannara, “Overview of community-based ecotourism for sustainable development in Cambodia,” September 2019, accessed January 2023.
- 24. Rawlins, et al, “Enabling ecotourism development in Cambodia,” World Bank, 2020, accessed January 2023.
- 25. Sok Sithika, “307 small nature tourism projects approved in September,” Khmer Times, October 2022, accessed January 2023.
- 26. Khmer Times Staff, “Ministry identifies 131 potential ecotourism communities,” Khmer Times, July 2022, accessed January 2023.
- 27. Ministry of Environment, “Cambodia Sustainable Landscape and Ecotourism Project,” February 2020, accessed January 2023.
- 28. Ngin Chanrith, “COVID-19 and the Tourism sector in Cambodia: impact, response and the road to recovery,” 2022, accessed January 2023.
- 29. ibid.
- 30. Ministry of Tourism, “Roadmap for Recovery of Cambodia tourism during and post COVID-19,” 2021, accessed January 2023.
- 31. World Travel Tourism Council, “2022 Annual Research: key highlights,” 2022, accessed January 2023.
- 32. ibid.
- 33. Khmer Times Staff, “51,000 tourism-based jobs in Cambodia vapourised because of COVID-19 pandemic,” Khmer Times, November 2020, accessed January 2023.
- 34. ibid.
- 35. Perter Varga, “Angkor Wat: The Impact of Mass Tourism,” EHL insight, accessed January 2023.
- 36. George Styllis, “Tourism slowdown threatens Cambodian model,” July 2016, accessed January 2023.
- 37. ibid.
- 38. Khmer Times Staff, “Four million international tourists expected by Cambodia this year after China’s pandemic strategy optimization,” Khmer Times, January 2023, accessed January 2023.
- 39. Chea Vanyuth, “Cambodia expects tourism generating $4B in 2023,” Khmer Times, January 2023, accessed January 2023.