Rescuing the Kingdom from limited Wanderlust

Gerald Flynn

Bold new plans are afoot to innovate the travel industry

Recent announcements from the Ministry of Tourism (MoT) highlight a significant drop in visitors to Cambodia’s illustrious Angkor Wat temple complex.

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The first six months of 2019 saw just 1.2 million visitors, a reduction of 8.3 percent according to Chuk Chumno, the director of the Department for Tourism Product Management within the MoT.

“Actually for the first segment of 2019 we have received around 3.3 million nationally, with an increase of 11.2 percent but, unfortunately for Siem Reap, there are some specific reasons that led to this year’s decrease,” he said.

These reasons will need to be addressed – and rapidly – if the Kingdom is to meet its ambitious goals of attracting 11 million foreign visitors by 2025 and 15 million by 2030.

Some seven million tourists are expected to arrive in Cambodia in 2020, which the MoT hopes will generate $4.3 million over the course of the year.

It would appear that the price hike of 2017 for Angkor Wat tickets has backfired somewhat.

Prices for a one-day ticket almost doubled to $37 from $20, while the cost of a three-day pass jumped to $62 from $40 and the less popular seven-day ticket grew slightly to $72 from $60.

This policy was initially seen as a success, raising $108 million in 2017 – a 12 percent increase from 2016 – but flash forward to today and these results seem not to be a long-term gain. But that’s not the only reason tourists are taking their selfies elsewhere.

Low value tourism

“Diversification is now the core strategy of the MoT. Maybe 20 years ago we depended heavily on Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, but over the last decade we’ve started to develop other destinations,” says Chuk.

“Tourism product development is key – if you stay in Bangkok for two or three days, you can go shopping, taste some street food and there are plenty of activities, so that’s now how we plan for more diversified tourism programmes,” he explains.

Last month showed one element of just how Cambodia’s tourism sector is looking to rely less on the 12th century temple complex in Siem Reap.

Collaborating with the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the MoT played host to a range of tourism professionals at the first International Conference on Cambodian Gastronomy and Food Tourism held in Phnom Penh.

Concerns raised

After a rousing speech about the virtues of Cambodian noodles from Thong Khon of the MoT, panellists took to the stage to raise concerns about the inherent problems festering in Cambodia’s tourism sector, as well as presenting food-focused solutions.

One recurrent issue that was raised was the length of time tourists spend exploring the Kingdom.

“Most that come, they only stay for one or two nights at each destination,” says Gavin Bell, team leader of the Tourism Commercial Capacity Building Programme in Cambodia.

“This is the worst kind of tourism. It yields low profits because of a low visitor spend that generates limited benefit for the local economy.”

Food for thought

Noting the global trend for what has been billed Food Tourism gaining traction, Bell cites a survey released in January this year from the World Food Travel Association that claims 93 percent of tourists are food travellers and 82 percent of them spend more on food while abroad than they do at home.

Bell also referenced a study from the Adventure Travel Tourism Association that found 51 percent of those surveyed said that they travel to learn about or enjoy unique and memorable eating and drinking experiences.

While neighbouring nations have long established culinary identities, Bell notes that Cambodia lacks a signature dish that is known beyond its borders.

“Cambodian cuisine is so poorly known around the world,” he says.

“In the UK there are just four Cambodian restaurants across the entire country, compared with Thai restaurants which were supported by a government-run gastro-diplomacy campaign to popularise their cuisine across the world.”

Cambodian ingredients

“At the moment there is an internal debating process about which dishes should be recognised as purely Cambodian,” says Bell, who works closely with the MoT in a capacity building role.

“Obviously there are things like fish amok, but I think we’ve come to a conclusion a lot of it should go back to ingredients.”

He goes on to list a range of Cambodian foodstuff that is considered superior, even though it is utilised frequently throughout the region.

This, he says, is because the localised agriculture that was born out of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime has left the Kingdom with an abundance of high-quality, organic agricultural ingredients such as lemongrass and pepper. Kampot pepper has long been recognised internationally as a premium product.

While unable to go into details, Bell reveals he is involved in a project that aims to strengthen the supply chain for Cambodian-grown products to ensure that local ingredients are being used in local restaurants across the country.

This, he hopes, will improve the quality of the food available for tourists, while simultaneously stimulating the local agriculture sector.

Gastro-tourism highlights

President of Cambodia Tourism Federation and chef at Thalias Hospitality, Luu Meng, agrees that more needs to be done to promote Cambodian cuisine in order to attract more curious travellers.

He estimates that Phnom Penh alone is home to nearly 4,000 street food stalls, whereas he believes there are some 500 in Siem Reap.

Cambodia, he explains, simply isn’t capitalising on these opportunities and, from his experience, he finds that tourists are not as confident in the quality or hygiene of these stalls as they are in Thailand or Vietnam.

“We need more aggressive branding for the Kingdom’s gastro-tourism highlights. We need to find what food people connect with, what represents Cambodia – and then we need to champion the street food stalls that do these dishes well,” he says, suggesting that more recognisable certifications are needed to help tourists understand where to eat.

Promoting the best

Luu hints that this could start with cleaning up street food areas, making them more enticing and running food tours throughout major tourist destinations that promote the best of what Cambodia has to offer.

Only 1.2 million visitors arrived in Cambodia in the first six months of 2019, says Chuk

“The UNWTO has just produced new guidelines on how to promote gastronomy tourism,” explains Chuk, adding that the MoT has already set plans in motion.

“So we have produced street food standards and encouraged all the provinces in Cambodia to set up at least one place for a food street in their provinces. It’s not just about tourism or gastro-tourism. It’s about representing the cultural identity of Cambodia.”

Rebranding, diversifying

While food is one weapon in the war against waning tourism figures, it is far from the only method that Cambodia hopes to employ to lure in the bigger spenders. Finally, the Kingdom’s tourism sector is going digital.

“Under the auspices of Thong Khon, the MoT has made the move to create a new national marketing promotions board that is in its infancy, but the intention is to create an organisation in line with international tourism models,” explains Bell, which he hopes will build on the success of the Kingdom of Wonder app that was released last month to help open up the wonders of the Kingdom to more tourists.

Awareness and perception are two key areas that the ministry is working hard to improve, Bell says, with digital campaigns set to help boost travel to the Kingdom during the low season.

“It’s the rainy season now so people don’t come because of the perception that they’re going to get rained on all day, which isn’t the way it happens and is sadly quite ironic, because it’s probably the best time to see Angkor Wat – it’s really green this time of year, so that’s a campaign that needs to be done to promote a ‘green season’ in Siem Reap,” Bell notes.

Similarly, a recurring issue raised at the gastronomy tourism conference was Cambodia’s lack of status as an independent destination, with many tourists visiting as part of a longer trip through Southeast Asia nations.

For the Asian Development Bank’s tourism innovation consultant, Jason Lusk, this is less of a problem than policymakers might think.

Climbing the value chain

“Well, look at the other side of that coin – at least they’re coming. A lot of countries at Cambodia’s level of socio-economic development would see very little tourism at all, but Cambodia, thanks to being on the Southeast Asia tourism trail, is a major tourist destination, even if it’s not an independent destination in its own right.”

Lusk goes on to detail how Cambodia benefits from its proximity to tourism heavyweights such as Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City that allows for greater cross-border travel within the region.

“Diversification and moving up the value chain, I think, go hand in hand,” he says. “So there’s certainly room within Cambodia to build up secondary destinations, in places such as Kampot and Battambong,” which Lusk believes would help ease the pressure on primary destinations such as Siem Reap and spread the revenue generated into more local economies.

He does, however, note that this will take time and effort on behalf of both the government and the private sector to develop secondary locations, as well as promoting them internationally.

Citing trends for more Free and Independent Travel (FIT), even among typically package-tour-favouring China, Lusk says this will be harder to promote as FIT tourists tend to prefer ‘discovering’ untouched destinations.

Getting off the beaten track

Bloggers, influencers and adventure tourism focused media are one way Cambodia could tap into this market and build up secondary destinations in the process, suggests Lusk, as well as capitalising on the Kingdom’s ever-expanding railway network.

“FIT travellers love trains and now Cambodia has them and that’s a very big deal – it makes independent travel a lot more appealing and accessible than it was even two years ago.”

This should be an area of focus, Lusk says, noting that as outbound tourist economies grow, there’s a shift away from group tourism and package tourism, to FIT tourism and eco-tourism, with China, South Korea and India becoming more of a factor in Southeast Asian tourism and domestic tourism developing rapidly in line with the economy.

“The desire is there to move up the tourism value chain, so policymakers are automatically aiming for wealthier tourists, but there is a cycle of development in destinations. That often includes starting as a backpacker destination, becoming a boutique destination for more adventurous tourists and then more infrastructure coming in to support more tourists and higher-spending tourists.”

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