Siem Reap and Angkor Wat Lose in Popularity

(Photo: Flickr)

Angkor Wat temples registered a decline of over 8% during the first half of 2019, a drop that the Ministry of Tourism explains mostly by the damage created by ‘zero-dollar tour’ mostly targeting Chinese travellers. Is it really the true reason of Siem Reap and Angkor tourist’s disaffection?

Tourism to Cambodia continues to grow thanks to a rise in Chinese arrivals. However, there is a grey spot in Cambodia tourism performance. And this grey spot is Angkor Wat. The icon of Cambodia culture but also tourism is suffering from a sharp decline in foreign visitors’ numbers. Since the start of the year, Angkor Archaeological Park received 1.24 million foreign visitors in the first half of this year, down more than 8 per cent compared to the same period last year, as ticket sales declined nine per cent to about $55 million, a Xinhua recent report highlighted following a tourism conference in Siem Reap.

The bad performance for Angkor fables temples is also reflected by the number of passengers flying out and in to Siem Reap. According to Vinci Airports-which is the main shareholder of Cambodia Airports, passengers’ traffic during the first half of 2019 declined by 4.8% to 2,23 million. During the same period, Phnom Penh registered a growth of 15.5% in passengers while Sihanoukville airport welcomed 0.76 million travellers, up by 211%.

The bad performance was announced by Cambodia Minister of Tourism Dr Thong Khon, who then put the blame on “zero-dollar tours”. Xinhua news agency reported Dr Thong Khon declaring that “Zero-dollar tour operators . . . give tours without taking a profit, but they bring guests to places charging exorbitant prices on souvenirs, food and accommodations and then take commissions. Zero-dollar tour operators are “destroyers of tourist destinations in Siem Reap province”, he said during the closing ceremony of Siem Reap Tourism Master Plan Workshop two weeks ago. The Minister asked for the closure of companies practicing ‘zero-dollar tour’.

But some professionals in travel trade think differently. The Phnom Penh Post quoted Khmer Angkor Tour Guide Association (Katga) president Khieu Thy who declared that the scam was certainly not behind the drop in tourist arrivals to Siem Reap, Zero-dollar tours generally target Chinese travellers and their number continues to grow.

Khieu Thy believes that climate issues, safety and public order in Siem Reap town and the sharp increase in prices to visit the Angkor Archaeological Park are behind Angkor negative performance. JAtga president also believes that Cambodia all-for-Chinese tourism policies has a deterrent effect on other nationalities, who feel neglected and annoyed by the extreme number of Chinese present in masses in Angkor and Siem Reap.

There is also an absence of renewed tourism products and a degraded image of Siem Reap that authorities need to think of and consequently adjust. Siem Reap as the gateway to Angkor fabulous archeological heritage should normally target quality-oriented sophisticated travellers looking for a unique cultural experience.

However, these travellers probably feel at odds by what they do discover in Siem Reap, the city centre is filled with a string of bars and pubs filled by drunken young travellers while groups of Chinese look generally for massage, karaoke and cheap food. Siem Reap atmosphere these days is in many aspects closer to the ambiance of Pattaya than of Sukhothai in Thailand. Quality travellers might then feel disappointed and spread the word to potential other visitors.

A senior executive of an inbound travel agency believes that the recently UNESCO-listed archaeological site of Bagan in Myanmar might further add woes to Angkor Wat. Bagan is likely in 2020 to attract curious culture-oriented travellers who could have chosen Angkor.