Monday, 28 March 2011 15:00 Steve Finch
THE scheduled arrival today of the first Air France flight to Phnom Penh in more than 35 years represents the first sign Cambodia is finally starting to establish itself as a long-haul destination in its own right, a key aim of the tourism industry.
When Air France’s Airbus A340-300 touches down in the capital today at about 2:30pm it will become the first major European airline to operate scheduled flights to Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. And further intercontinental connections could follow.
Recent reports of talks between the government and Aeroflot point to possible flights to Russia, while the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation recently started talks with the United Kingdom and Turkey with the aim of setting up direct routes.
The key to developing new intercontinental routes will be whether airlines believe there is sufficient demand for scheduled services to Cambodia.
In Europe this certainly seems to be the case. In January, Europe was the fastest growing region as arrivals climbed 22 percent on a year earlier, Ministry of Tourism data showed. Over the same period, the number of Russian visitors more than doubled suggesting there is huge potential for Aeroflot flights.
One in every eight visitors to Cambodia now comes from Russia, the UK or France, a sign of how important the European market has become for the domestic tourism industry. The convenience of new, direct services to these countries is therefore vital if Cambodia is to tap into the fast-growing, high-spending European market.
Although Air France has finally returned to Cambodia, the fact its new scheduled services go through Bangkok is a reminder the country remains a spoke in world aviation connecting to more prominent hubs such as the Thai capital and Singapore. For Cambodia to really branch out its national carrier Cambodia Angkor Air would have to develop services beyond Asia, a possibility that appears some way off.
The Asia-Pacific region still accounts for two-thirds of all visitors to Cambodia including the top three destination countries, South Korea, Vietnam and China respectively.
Of the four airlines set to begin new connections to Cambodia during this year’s off-peak season, aside from Air France the rest are all within Asia. Airport operator Societe Concessionaire des Aeroports is scheduled to confirm flights by Tiger Airways to Singapore and Skywings Airlines on a new triangular route connecting Siem Reap, Seoul and Hanoi to add to Myanmar Airways International flights that started in February.
For many intercontinental airlines, connecting to Cambodia remains a leap of faith. But continued strong visitor growth suggests some long-haul carriers are starting to take the Kingdom seriously.