Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tourism Bust in Cambodia?

This is my personal assessment and prediction of sorts based on my 30 years in the international tourism business and on numbers published by the Ministry of Tourism and some other sources, e. g. The Travel Weekly , and most importantly based on numbers obtained from the booking portals.

There was a brief analysis posted on Facebook recently that in my opinion did not quite make the cut in verified facts.

Cambodian statistics are notoriously unreliable. Sometimes I get the impression it is like reading tea leaves. If you see how they collect numbers for the Sihanoukville market, in which I am an active participant, I suspect it is not much different for the other larger markets, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

In total there were about 4.5 million visitors; that includes both business travelers and tourists. The sector showed a healthy increase of 7% over 2014. This is an outstanding result anywhere in the world. Of course, Cambodia cannot expect to have increases as in the beginning of substantial tourist arrivals starting in 2004 or so, with increases of 17%. The old adage applies: low numbers large increases. Now these numbers all have to be taken with a grain of salt. A hefty 75% come from other Asian countries, most notably Vietnam and China. What is of interest to European/American-owned tourist businesses is the number of European and North American arrivals, namely approximately 750,000, with the U. S. leading with 192,000.

Looking at Sihanoukville, the MOT published 1.5 million visitors, of which 400,000 were foreigners, in other words, 1.1 million were Cambodians visiting the coastal city. A rough estimate published was 150,000 Western tourists for 2015. This figure was mentioned in an interview with the local tourism official. Again, how do they count the numbers? Hotels are required to file statistics with the tourism department but very few, if any at all, do.  As mentioned elsewhere there is an oversupply of accommodations available. features 179 properties. There is new construction of hotels going on everywhere in town. These can never be run economically in the foreseeable future with an average length of stay of 3.8 days. This figure is, of course, also somewhat misleading as local visitors usually stay only one night, and Asian tourists between two and four. Among the Western tourists the large segment of backpackers stays from 0 to 1 night in town in order to head off to the islands where they stay longer; there is no statistic on that. They are all counted as Sihanoukville tourists. Older tourists tend to just sample the islands for a couple of nights as they do not want to forgo the comforts of hotel rooms in town. And these people tend to stay longer, from 4 to 7 days. The number of people staying beyond that may be small but some spend the entire cold winter months here, albeit in rented condos if they stay at least 3 months which are usually rented only for that minimum period of time.

Cambodia and Sihanoukville in particular used to be an extension to a SE Asian trip, but that has changed over time. It has now become a destination in its own right, e. g. 3 days Phnom Penh, 4 days Siem Reap, and 4 days Sihanoukville, not counting those that visit the Cardamon mountains, Rattanakiri, etc., the largest booking portal in the world with about 750,000 hotels in their database and with a sophisticated software to steer potential guests to the hotel that meets their criteria, also have the most reliable statistics as far as bookings for Sihanoukville are concerned. They report an increase of 140% from November 2015 to the beginning of February 2016. the second largest for the SE Asian market shows a 17% increase in 2015 over 2014, and a 33% increase for the period November ’15 to Feb. ’16. That outweighs Agoda is probably proportionate to their market share. These facts contradict the common perception that there is a tourism bust in Sihanoukville or in Cambodia in general, because by extension what goes for Sihanoukville as a minor market would apply to the larger markets as well. The complaints about a slow high season are possibly coming from entrepreneurs that contributed to the oversupply of accommodations and gastronomical enterprises.

It is also evident that the age of visitors that stay in Sihanoukville has increased as have families with children during vacation times. The young back- and flashpackers go to the islands as prices in Sihanoukville have increased along with the standard of hotels there, making Sihanoukville more unattractive for this group. However, the islands may undergo at least a stagnation for a while as the adequate beach front land available for the sort of guesthouses now dotting the islands has become scarce, not to mention the evident environmental problems facing the islands already. The uncertain legal situation with soft titles makes development there only attractive for the more adventurous risk-takers.

Sihanoukville has taken a lot of flak online for being a dump with trash all over the place whether it is on Ochheuteal beach or along the streets. Things may be looking up as groups of garbage pickers have been spotted on occasion, and trash containers have been put up. Maybe the Tourist Department is now taking its role more seriously because it is a fact that during the past 8 years or so nothing much has really been done about the deplorable state of the beach in one of the most beautiful bays in Asia. One also has to wonder about the role of the hotel association within this framework. Surely, a lot of their work is done behind closed in sessions with the Tourist Department, but then again, nothing much could seen in terms of results. I worked with the Chamber of Commerce here with about the same results.

The internet is a bane and a boon for the tourist business at the same time. Reports of a crime wave are blown out of proportion mostly by the social media. Handbag snatching is encountered in every poor country in the world.  The same goes for corrupt cops shaking down hapless tourists. And it is true that it used to be popular destination, and to some degree still is, for sex tourists. Their presence, however, is mostly confined to certain parts of town. And yes, countries with such liberal visa requirements also attract the more dubious characters from the Western world. Naturally, retirees come here as their dollar stretches a little more here than in their home country, notwithstanding the current rise in its value against the Euro, the Australian dollar, and the Pound.

And for the outlook; what does it hold in store for the future of the tourist business in Cambodia, and Sihanoukville in particular, in view of terrorism, economic uncertainty, and tighter budgets due to currency factors?

One look at Thailand will show that terrorism scares people off for about 3 months after which time they start coming back simply for lack of alternate destinations. I have seen the same phenomenon in my past experience. Travelers coming to SE Asia is a clientele that usually does not go the Caribbean or Africa. Thailand reports healthy increases in tourist arrivals. Another aspect is that this terrorism and the underlying conflict is central more to the Middle East, Europe and the North Atlantic. Of course, a terrorist bomb on an airliner could hit anywhere. Apart from Malaysian Airlines, and the reasons for the disappearance are still unknown, no Arab or Asian airlines have been targeted. European security measures have become very strict and air travel is actually up despite those potential threats. It appears as though this is not a significant deterrent for people to travel to Asia.

European economies are wavering on the brink of stagnation, except for the German economic powerhouse. This uncertain future of the economy affects, regrettable as always, the lower segment of society, in other words, middle and upper middle class people have less to fear in this respect and will continue to travel. One should not forget that Europeans on the whole enjoy unparalleled vacation time – often 4 and more weeks of paid vacation time per year. Once November rolls around there people get so tired of the dreary and bleak weather they pack their bags and off they go to warmer climates. Of course, the Euro has lost significant value from a height of $1.35 to $1.08 right now, but facts contradict the overall effect of this devaluation. The price of oil has dropped to almost historic levels and this makes itself felt on people's pocketbooks, offsetting the lower parity. People travel just as much. Americans make up the majority of Western tourists. Their economy is humming along and they are not affected by a declining parity. The only problem with Americans is that they have very short paid vacations. This is why they really start to travel seriously once they are retired. One group severely affected are Russian tourists. The ruble is has lost more than 100% against the dollar. This was immediately felt last year and the beginning of this high season did not show any improvement. However, it seems that now that wide-ranging travel restrictions are in place there - Turkey, their most popular destination, is out, the Ukraine is out, government employees are not allowed to travel outside the country - Russians can only go to Asia. There is a slightly brighter outlook for Russian arrivals right now, but only time will tell.

So what would affect Cambodia? Some say it is a one-time destination because if you have seen Angkor Wat once, what else is there. Well, seasoned travelers will tell those people there is plenty more to see, especially in the northern provinces. I have no statistics on hand to show how many repeat visitors come to Cambodia but from personal experience it is around 5% - and that’s only Western tourists. Seeing as there was still substantial growth last year – even if the 7% might actually be only 6% (?) – I personally don’t see that the curve flatlines to 0% or even go below that. The Asian market is by no means exhausted yet and despite China’s problems there are still enough affluent Chinese people with enough disposable income to travel.

And, last but not least, the country continues to enjoy overall growth in all sectors, and is a very safe and politically stable country.  Travel advisories put out by embassies are mostly there to cover their own backsides. A coup like in Thailand will not happen here in the foreseeable future. Cambodia has arrived on the political world scene, notwithstanding Sam Rainsy’s efforts, as evidenced by the recent World Economic Summit in Davos, the upcoming ASEAN-U.S. meeting, and other meeting with world leaders. This enhances the current government’s stature and this always has ramifications beyond politics, e. g. the common perception of Cambodia among other countries’ consumers.


Unknown said...

I spend 8 days in Siem Reap in February. I will be in the 5% of return visitors.

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