Monday, June 27, 2011

Industry cooperation between Thailand and Cambodia is down but not out amid political tensions

PHNOM PENH : Organisers of the Thai Travel Mart Plus 2011 held in Bangkok earlier this month said Cambodian companies did not attend the regional event due to political tensions, a further sign this year's border clashes between the two countries have had a negative economic impact.

Thai tourist arrivals in Cambodia fell 34% year-on-year in the first quarter, even as foreign visitor numbers overall increased by 14%.

Gun Punthuhong, a spokesman for the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), told the Bangkok Post by telephone from the opening of the three-day event on June 8 that the absence of Cambodian tour operators in Bangkok was due to the "obvious [bilateral] political chaos".

"There are no companies from Cambodia," he said. "Last year, they joined."

Vietnamese companies also did not attend the event, the biggest tourism trade show in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS).

"Vietnam wants to do it on its own," said Mr Gun.

Ang Kim Eang, president of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents, denied the decision not to attend was political. The TAT had failed to send details of the event to tour operators in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, he said.

"We are in the private sector. We are not involved in politics," said Ang Kim Eang. "So we still have good relations with our Thai counterparts. We do not discriminate."

So Visothy, the head of marketing and promotion in the Cambodian Tourism Ministry, declined to comment, saying he is not a decision-maker on political issues.

He deferred to Tourism Minister Thong Khon, who was unavailable.

Tourism, along with border trade, has been the main economic victim following deadly border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia in February and April. Thai Airways (THAI) reported a small drop in passenger numbers between Bangkok and Phnom Penh after fighting, and tour operators have bemoaned the psychological effect that tensions have had on tourists.

Cambodian Tourism Ministry data show nearly 14,000 fewer Thai travellers visited Cambodia in the first quarter than in the same period last year, a drop of 34% as foreign arrivals in the country soared 14% overall.

"The tense situation certainly negatively affects new bookings," said Luzi Matzig, chief executive of Bangkok-based Asian Trails, which operates offices across the region including in Cambodia. "Mainly affected are local markets such as fewer Thais visiting Cambodia and vice versa."

Although Thailand remains the main entry point for international visitors to Cambodia, Vietnam is catching up, as Hanoi plans to make the country a rival to main regional air hubs Bangkok and Singapore.

Last year, air arrivals in Siem Reap from Bangkok fell by 37%, but still 40% of all arrivals in that city _ home to Cambodia's biggest tourism draw, Angkor Wat _ originated from Thailand, according to Cambodian Tourism Ministry figures, with Vietnam accounting for 31% of the traffic.

Suvarnabhumi airport remains the main hub to Phnom Penh, with 10 flights daily on THAI, Bangkok Airways, Thai AirAsia and, as of the end of March, Air France. Ho Chi Minh City is the next-busiest route to the Cambodian capital.

In April 2010, the Cambodian-Vietnamese border crossing west of Ho Chi Minh City at Moc Bai overtook Aranyaprathet for the first time as the main land crossing point into Cambodia, although that was almost certainly due to political chaos in Bangkok during the red-shirt protests. By the end of last year, Aranyaprathet was again the main entry point to Cambodia, although government officials in Phnom Penh have recently played down Thailand's role in the country's tourism industry.

Last month, So Mora, secretary of state for the Cambodian Tourism Ministry, reacted angrily after Indonesian media reports quoted Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya commenting on the sidelines of the Asean Summit in Jakarta that Cambodia's tourism industry remained reliant on Thailand as a point of entry.

"We're not really dependent on Thailand for anything to survive. On the contrary, Thailand's tourism sector earns a lot of profit from tourism to Cambodia," So Mora was quoted as saying in The Phnom Penh Post.

Although bilateral tourism relations between Thailand and Cambodia have suffered as a result of recent tensions, Bangkok and Phnom Penh did finalise an agreement this year that will allow a set number of vehicles to cross the border each day, although it is yet to be implemented.

Tourists travelling overland between the two countries must change buses and walk across the border on foot as opposed to checkpoints between Cambodia and Vietnam where vehicles are permitted to cross following a bilateral agreement.

Despite the non-attendance of Cambodia and Vietnam at the Travel Mart Plus, 15 companies from Burma, Laos and China's Yunnan province attended GMS events in Bangkok, the TAT said in a statement.

The Asian Development Bank said annual tourist arrivals to the GMS nearly tripled between 1995 and 2009, from 10 million to 26 million.

Sugree Sithivanich, the TAT's executive director for advertising and public relations, told the Bangkok Post this was due to the rise in flight connections, relaxation of visa rules and increased cooperation between governments.

"All the growth that exists today is almost entirely a result of specific policy measures undertaken as a result of regional and subregional agreements," he said.

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