A tourist shops for silk scarves at a market in downtown Siem Reap. Photo by: Will Baxter
Monday, 07 March 2011 15:00 Steve Finch
SOUTH Korea’s return to the position of number-one visitor to Cambodia in January might not seem significant, but for the travel industry it symbolises the final stage of recovery.
Replacing Vietnamese at the top of the arrivals list, the strong rebound in South Korean visitors, up an annualised 36.9 percent according to Ministry of Tourism figures released last week, represents the return of high-spending tourists from developed countries. These were the countries hit hardest by the crisis. In many ways the recent trend of South Koreans to Cambodia has embodied the changing fortunes of the domestic travel industry.
Koreans had held the top spot since 2004, the year growth in domestic tourism exploded as total receipts climbed 67 percent to US$578 million, the highest annual rise ever.
But the onset of the crisis in late 2008 and a 35-percent slide in the South Korean won the same year that eroded the country’s spending power meant by the start of 2009, Vietnamese had overtaken South Koreans in terms of total visitors to Cambodia.
In a bid to offset the slump in high-spending travellers, the government eased tour bus restrictions and opened new border gates with Vietnam. The result was a 51-percent surge in visitors from Cambodia’s neighbour in 2009 and a 2.13 percent slide in total tourism receipts to $1.56 billion, the first decline in six years.
Ang Kim Eang, president of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents, noted Vietnamese typically spend only $50 per day and stay just three days compared to European long-haul visitors who spend more on trips that average 10 days. The difference is significant. Although total receipts were up 14.4 percent last year to $1.786 billion, the average spend was down to $110.40 per visitor per day compared to $112.85 in 2008 before the crisis hit in full.
All signs suggest spending should return to pre-crisis levels this year. Like South Koreans, visitors from the likes of France are coming back in droves with numbers up 23.4 percent on January last year, according to MOT data.
The downside is travellers from other high-spending markets the United States and the United Kingdom made a weaker comeback, with single-digit growth over the same period.
Olivier Marchesin, general manager of Exotissimo Cambodia, which specialises in high-end tours for European travellers, said: “Many … are also still in a state of fragility and/or recovery from the recession, with the outlook in Europe still uncertain. This directly impacts on the recovery of the Cambodian tourism sector.”
China should help compensate. There were 62.8 percent more visitors from the mainland in January compared to a year earlier, tourists who command rising spending power.
A Pacific-Asia Travel Association intentions survey last year found out of 13 markets surveyed including South Korea, Australia and the US, the Chinese spent on average the second-highest amount on their last trip at $2,937. The report found Chinese intend to take the most holidays abroad in 2011 and 2012 of those surveyed.
The Chinese, like travellers from other key high-spending markets, mostly arrive by air, a category that is close to fully recovered after a huge 10.3-percent dip in flight arrivals in 2009. There were 19.8 percent more air arrivals in January compared to a year earlier, outstripping total arrivals which were up 18 percent. And the start of Air France flights from Paris via Bangkok to Phnom Penh later this month can only help raise passenger numbers.
Like any industry, tourism is not about how many customers come to visit, it’s about how much money is coming in, and most signs point towards a surge in tourist spending in Cambodia this year.