OPINION: How Has COVID-19 Impacted Cambodia’s Tourism Sector

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably disrupted most businesses across all types of industries, with a significant hit to the tourism and travel sector. Countries are practising different methods of control in an attempt to monitor and minimise the spread of the pandemic, whereby lockdowns and movement controls are mostly favoured. This action has put a pause to the global tourism sector as people’s movements are now restricted. In the Southeast Asian region, countries are suffering losses due to the drop in Chinese tourists since the COVID-19 outbreak.

In Cambodia, 2,865 tourism businesses were stated as either suspended or closed. It is devastating to Cambodia’s economy, as the tourism sector is amongst the key industries, alongside with the garment and footwear sectors, which accounts for 80 per cent of the country’s exports. New Straits Times reports that Cambodia’s tourism sector contributes to 12.1 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product growth and employs up to 630,000 people. Workers involved in the Cambodian tourism sector will panic due to fear of unemployment, negatively impacting the economy and society, unless addressed immediately.

However, despite the closure of businesses in the tourism sector, in the second week of March, more than 190,000 Cambodian and international tourists were recorded visiting resorts and touristic sites in Cambodia. A clear sign, despite the inability of travelling beyond borders, people are still adamant about travelling. The question is, “Is it safe and sustainable?”. Travelling is possible, if each stakeholder is responsible. Tourists, local communities and every part of the tourism value chain have to play their roles in ensuring that public health is given priority, as advised by the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).

Putting People First

UNWTO strongly points out the need for ‘new health and safety protocols’, as it is essential to gain the trust of people in ensuring that it is truly safe to travel. A recent article by UNWTO published on May 15, 2020 states that “trust is the new currency. If people trust that the government and tourism sector prioritises the health of people, they will unquestionably travel again; in some cases like Cambodia, it has already begun. The inflow of tourists to and about Cambodia is a good sign for the country as it contributes to economic growth, during this downturn. However, if not addressed carefully, it could be a double-edged sword, with a potential second wave of infectious disease spreading across the country. In order to prevent that from happening, policymakers should implement clear protocols for all tourism suppliers and tourists to abide to, ensuring the sustainability and safety of travelling. 

Main tourist destinations and attractions that are usually swarming with tourists such as Angkor Wat and many other temples across the country should limit the number of tourists visiting, at any one time. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), people will be more inclined to visit uncrowded destinations. Managing the number of visitors is crucial for public health precautions of “social distancing”, to mitigate the risk of the virus spreading. Additionally, it should be mandatory that all tourists, tour guides and staff working at these touristic sites, adhere to proper hygiene practices such as wearing masks at all times. Sanitizer stations and disinfectant wipes should be made available around communal areas or key high traffic areas. However, it is imperative to ensure these guidelines reach out to the general public. Hence, different tools should be used to convey the message. Innovative and creative means such as using videos or social media platforms are highly encouraged, as they can disseminate information effectively.

Changing Tourist Behaviour in Cambodia

Furthermore, it is observed that young travellers and even families are interested in participating in nature-based tourism such as ecotourism, adventure tourism, and exploring coastal-islands and remote provinces. This point strongly indicates that there is a change in consumer behaviour in the tourism sector in Cambodia due to the pandemic. Instead of flocking to crowded touristic sites, tourists prefer sites and destinations that allow social distancing to be practised. Remote destinations will be preferred rather than urban destinations, as crowd avoidance will be the new trend. Nature-based tourism is ideal for the current situation, as this form of tourism primarily focuses on “observation, enjoyment of natural resources in their wild, undisturbed or undeveloped form, of which can also occur in urban locations (gardens), rural/ industrial settings (farms and ranches) and manmade environments (zoos, safari parks and aquaria)”. This form of tourism, wherein space is ample, allows tourists to practise social distancing, while enjoying their tourist experience.

Cambodia is rich with its natural resources, which if presented and developed appropriately, could be a new form of tourism as a potential means of recovery for the tourism sector. Instead of focusing on the present mainstream touristic sites in Cambodia, it is ideal to look beyond and invest in other forms of tourism that are sustainable in this current pandemic situation. Nature-based tourism such as ecotourism, wildlife tourism, adventure tourism, volunteer tourism, island tourism and others can be found in Cambodia. For example, there are a few community-based, ecotourism sites located in Stung Treng, Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri and Kratie provinces. However, these sites are not as popularly known amongst tourists as these sites are not given adequate attention. Relevant stakeholders and policymakers should invest in creating awareness of these sites as tourism is a resilient sector and has bounced back many times, as history shows. Additionally, it is essential to examine the need for qualified human resources to spearhead and facilitate the development of this niche market. Hence, frequent, and relevant training and workshops are highly encouraged.

Nature-based tourism could potentially be a new source of income for Cambodia’s tourism sector, with the support of the government and co-operation of tourism providers and tourists. Furthermore, these new tourist destinations in Cambodia increase the growth of domestic tourism, which could minimise the impact of the pandemic. International tourism has been heavily impacted due to the global travel restrictions. In order for Cambodia’s tourism sector to bounce back, domestic tourism must be the key focus at this point. A notable change is seen in the recent weeks whereby the city is slowly getting back to her usual self, and tourists are seen walking out and about the streets of Phnom Penh. During the weekends and public holidays, vKirirom Resort is continuously packed with tourists. The sudden change of tourists’ movement suggests that domestic tourism could be a means of recovery for Cambodia tourism sector. However, tourism providers of such sites must comply with government policies and set clear guidelines for tourists to follow.

An example to illustrate this point is the vKirirom Resort located within the Kirirom National Park in Kampong Speu. To help address the pandemic, the Resort has taken necessary measures whereby the Resort now ensures that masks and sanitizers are readily available for guests and visitors. Temperature checks are also compulsory for both guests and visitors. Both resort staff and visitors are encouraged to wear masks and practise regular hand washing. However, further steps should be practised, such as conducting regular disinfection in public spaces such as receptions, restaurants, activity sites and rooms. In doing so, it proves that both tourism providers and guests are practising responsible travel, which is strongly encouraged by UNWTO . Even so, it is equally essential for guests, visitors and tourists alike to follow these protocols when visiting a destination.

Importance of Digitalisation in the Travel and Tourism Sector

In line with raising awareness, digital tools should be incorporated into current tourism business models. Digital marketing is not new to the public; however, it is not widely used by tourism practitioners in Cambodia. There are various contributing factors to this, such as poor internet connection, lack of awareness on using digital tools and lack of training. The pandemic has indefinitely forced most businesses out of their comfort zone, as the need for digital tools is necessary, in order to keep businesses in operation. Educating the public in light of using digital tools is highly relevant. 

To educate the current tourism providers in utilising digital tools effectively is vital to ensure business continuity. The government could provide online seminars, workshops, or webinars for the public to attend. By doing so, tourism providers in Cambodia will continuously be up-to-date on the global tourism industry and acquire knowledge and skills of digital literacy. Collaboration with neighbouring countries or tourism organisations is highly encouraged, as it enables the sharing of knowledge to address the pandemic. These seminars and workshops should be available for students as well, particularly students of the hospitality, tourism, and travel sector.

Conclusion

In summary, countries are taking different measures to address the impact of COVID-19 on the tourism sector. Following the saying of ‘one size does not fit all’, Cambodia is in the process of identifying measures that are implementable in the country. It is essential to ‘put people first’ whereby strict health measures must be enforced to reduce the risk of a wider spread of the outbreak and to have the support of the government in enforcing international collaboration with international bodies and countries. Despite all these proposed policy options, it is the responsibility of each stakeholder to play their role in ensuring effective, safe, and sustainable travel.

Source: Agency Kampuchea Press