Dr. Thong Khon has held the portfolio of Minister of Tourism since 1998, making him a veteran amongst tourism ministers in ASEAN. In this exclusive interview, he highlights the future developments of Cambodian tourism. In 2015, Cambodian total foreign arrivals reached a new record of 4.775 million, up by 6.1% over 2014. From January to May 2016, foreign tourist arrivals progressed again by 2.4% to reach 2.030 million.
Tourism in Cambodia is getting stronger year after year but remains overly concentrated in and around Siem Reap and the Angkor temples. What is your strategy to spread tourism benefits to other regions?
We defined many years ago three major development areas for tourism: Angkor Wat and Siem Reap mostly for cultural tourism; Phnom Penh for urban tourism including business travel and MICE; and the Southern Coast for seaside and leisure tourism. We are pleased to see the latter turning increasingly attractive for international travellers. We forecast that the coastal area will reach a million international tourists before the end of the decade, compared to approximately 700,000 arrivals this year. However, we know that we need to promote more destinations to increase the length of stay in Cambodia and make our Kingdom a ‘stand-alone’ destination and not merely an extension to another country.
Which are the new areas that you would like to promote?
We are first of all truly committed to promote green sustainable tourism, also by including local communities. Tourism can indeed offer many job opportunities to anyone in our society, including those in remote areas. This idea of spreading the benefits of tourism motivates us when identifying new destinations. We look now at promoting actively Battambang as we are currently in the process of upgrading Highway 1 to a four-lane road, which would shorten travel time from Phnom Penh to our western city. We are now developing a master plan to bring more international tourists to Preah Vihear, our UNESCO temple near the Thai and Lao border. We just signed with Laos an agreement to open a border check point which would link Preah Vihear to Wat Phu, another UNESCO World Heritage site in Southern Laos. We are also looking at turning Oudong—just an hour away from Phnom Penh—into a rural agro-tourism and cultural destination. Oudong has some historical sightseeing as it used to be one of Cambodia’s capital cities. It is also an important area for rice and handicraft with a wonderful silver-craft village near to Oudong city. We could then help to increase to three days the length of stay in Phnom Penh.
Talking about Phnom Penh, it seems that the city suffers a lack of image. What can be done to increase Cambodia’s capital city appeal?
We know that we need to increase the length of stay in Phnom Penh by providing more activities for travellers. I mentioned our aim to promote Oudong in the vicinity of Phnom Penh. We also want to provide more tours around the Tonle Sap and the Mekong, where visitors can still discover authentic fishermen lake villages. We want to strengthen the image of Phnom Penh as a water city. There is a US$5 to 10 million project to clean the rivers, improve the capital’s Mekong Riverfront, and even provide a system of city boats such as Paris “Bateaux Mouche”. We are also looking at creating a community-based resort in Koh Oknha Tei while we continue to promote also the rural weaving village of Koh Dach, which specializes in silk manufacturing. This would help to increase the Phnom Penh length of stay to three days. And I must say that we should do more to promote Phnom Penh nascent art scene as well as some of its remaining architectural jewels.
Phnom Penh also suffers from heavy traffic jams. Any plan to make the city easier to navigate for both locals and tourists?
We are convinced that Phnom Penh should be turned into a green city by taking away some of the traffic burden by not only building new roads, but also by creating new outside districts offering plenty of attractions for travellers. We are encouraged by the fact that Phnom Penh will host the SEA Games in 2020 and that we need to have new and improved infrastructure to accommodate both participants and spectators. China is helping us building a new US$150 million stadium, northeast of the capital. The stadium will be the centre of a totally new district, stretching over 85 hectares of land, with eco-friendly buildings, hotels, shopping facilities, and recreational areas. We will also build for the SEA games a skytrain line linking the Stadium to the airport via the city centre. It will help to relieve the burden of traffic in and out of the city. We are now looking to construct a tunnel in the city centre which will help in connecting the north to the south by avoiding going through Phnom Penh historical areas. Phnom Penh could then become an urban model for other Southeast Asian cities.