Cambodia’s tourism industry has evolved in leaps and bounds in the last few decades. As it becomes an increasingly important economic pillar for the Kingdom, editor Marissa Carruthers looks at its growth and what the future has in store. Photography by Enric Català.

Being able to wonder around iconic Angkor Wat without battling the crowds that flock there seems unimaginable today, but it wasn’t that long ago that the ancient religious site was reserved for adventurous tourists wanting to lace their travels with a dose of danger – a very different story from the one that stands today.

As well as sitting at the centre of Khmer culture, Angkor Wat stands at the centre of the country’s exploding tourism sector, symbolising its rapid growth.

According to figures from the Ministry of Tourism (MoT), in the mid-1990s – as the country was starting to open up after decades of civil war – about 7,500 international visitors explored the site annually. Last year, this figure almost hit 2.2 million.

“The change has been quite dramatic,” says Andrew Carroll, founder of Exotic Voyages. “On my first visit to Siem Reap, all the streets were dusty paths from the airport to the town and the hotel options were limited, especially further away from the temples. Now, you have a vibrant and popular town, with exceptional restaurants and bars, streets with local designer boutiques, and hotels that are among the finest in Asia.”

While Angkor remains the top draw for tourists, as the country’s infrastructure has developed, along with the range of activities and accommodation available, more remote areas of the country have opened, paving the way for new markets, such as ecotourism, luxury travel and adventure trips.

With the MoT having set its sights on attracting 7.5 million foreigners by 2020 and Siem Reap hosting the inaugural Cambodia Travel Mart this month, AsiaLIFE traces back the industry’s evolution and looks at the challenges ahead.

Tourist Trickle

When Nick Ray first visited Cambodia as a backpacker in 1995, the country was very different to what stands today. The Khmer Rouge were yet to fully surrender, with pockets of fighters defending the last remaining strongholds.

The previous year had been dogged with the kidnapping and execution of three foreigners – an Australian, Brit and Frenchman – who were ambushed by Khmer Rouge soldiers while travelling on a train from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, there was no land travel between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – domestic flights and boat were the only way to travel – and the numerous check-points set up across Cambodia made accessing many

areas impossible.

“These were pretty edgy times,” says Ray, who started covering Cambodia for Lonely Planet in 1998, eventually moving fulltime to the Kingdom in 2001, also working with Hanuman Travels. “Backpackers and adventurous travellers were really the only people who came here back then.”

The 1993 UN-backed elections paved the way for peace and by the mid-1990s a handful of European and American tour companies started running small tour groups as an extension from Vietnam to Angkor Wat on government-run buses.

Willem Niemeijer founded Khiri Travel in 1993 with the aim of selling Thailand and Indochina as four countries, one destination. The company quickly secured a flurry of travellers interested in the Kingdom.

“Throughout the 1990s we saw the market split between adventure travellers, usually coming in groups taking advantage of the newly opened destination to get really off the beaten track, often for two or three weeks, and those only interested in a few days, usually to Angkor, avoiding the hardships of the bad roads and standard accommodation,” the Khiri Travel chairman and CEO of YAANA Ventures says.

Carrol Sahaidak-Beaver, executive director of The Cambodia Hotel Association, said tourism didn’t really start to take off until the early 2000s. “In 1998, you couldn’t even travel through the country. It only attracted the most daring travellers around.”

The end of the 1990s brought with it a shift in security. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in April 1998 and the fighting in the northern area of Anlong Veng, headed by Khmer Rouge leader, Brother Number Five Ta Mok, ran until Christmas 1998.

Other major moves that encouraged the trickle of tourists was the entrance of international brands onto the market. In 1997, Raffles entered Cambodia, followed by Sofitel in Siem Reap three years later. “This really changed the dynamics,” says Sahaidak-Beaver. “It helped build confidence.”

And in December 1999, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared an open skies policy in a bid to attract more direct international flights to land in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.

However, these were small steps in the country’s modern tourism tale.

“It took time to change public perception,” says Ray, adding the international shift was given a huge boost when a celebration was held at Angkor Wat on New Year’s Eve to mark the turn of the new Millennium. “It was a huge event, with 2,000 lanterns let into the sky,” he recalls. “People could see the country was more stable.”

Tapping into Local Life

With the foundations laid in the tourist hubs of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, accommodation, eateries and bars started mushrooming. And the huge investment ploughed into infrastructure – a development that continues today – made an increasing number of areas accessible, slowly driving tourists into more outlying areas. This led to the development of various genres of tourism, with ecotourism holding huge untapped potential.

“Today, with improving infrastructure and an open attitude towards entrepreneurs – both local and foreign – the development of quality accommodation, new social enterprises, and innovative tourism activities outside of the Siem Reap and Phnom Penh hubs, Cambodia is now firmly on the path of becoming a mature destination,” says Niemeijer.

“The country now offers ancient historical sites, vibrant city life, beautiful beaches and access to stunning nature for tourists of all budgets.”

The millennial-driven desire for “authentic experiences” and rise of responsible tourism has also led to Cambodia becoming a frontrunner in this realm, with stacks of potential in the ecotourism and community-based tourism sphere. Many organisations started using tourism as a tool to showcase the country’s natural beauty while helping elevate some of the Kingdom’s poorest communities from poverty.

Khiri Travel is one company that champions this approac, seeking out those off-the-beaten track experiences that many modern travellers desire, connecting with communities along the way.

“We have always approached our business from the point of view that our efforts have to benefit not just the company’s bottom line and its clients, but also the communities it touches, and contribute to the preservation of natural resources,” says Niemeijer. “Khiri Travel is a destination management company, so, on the surface, we need to provide all the ‘commodities’ of packaged travel: hotels, guides, transport – but we also add great, immersive experiences. These local encounters make for unforgettable memories, create connections and help spread tourism dollars to local communities across the country.”

Wildlife Alliance also pioneered the movement when in 2007 it worked with villagers in the remote Chi Phat area of the Cardamom Mountains. Here, animal trafficking and poaching, as well as logging, was rife and decimating the once-pristine area. To equip villagers with alternative skills and income, they trained them in hospitality, working towards creating a network of homestays and experiences, such as jungle trekking, kayaking and cycling, to offer unforgettable experiences while steering the community in a new direction.

Cambodian Rural Development Team has also embraced the movement, launching in November 2011 to offer trips throughout Kratie and Stung Treng provinces, immersing visitors in local life while making a positive contribution to communities along the way.

Khoun Tola, business programme manager, says, “Community-based tourism and ecotourism have proved to be great ways of showing visitors the real Cambodia – a demand we have seen increasing over recent years – while helping conserve the country’s beauty and help generate income for some of the most isolated and impoverished communities.”

Luxurious Life

Cambodia’s low cost of living coupled with a swathe of budget accommodation, cheap eats and beer have made it attractive to the backpacker crowd, drawing long-term travellers hitting the Southeast Asia circuit.

However, recent years have seen it shake off its image as a budget destination, thanks to the introduction of a series of high-end experiences and accommodation – harking back to the country’s heyday.

“[Cambodia] did not used to be known as a budget destination,” says Andy Booth, founder and CEO of ABOUTAsia Travel. “When Charlie Chaplin visited Angkor Wat in the late 1930s, travel was expensive and the preserve of the well to do. Kep City was also the premier seaside resort in the whole of French Indochina, with fancy villas occupying large plots of land along wide boulevards.”

While a swathe of luxury hotels set up shop in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh throughout the 2000s, such as Amansara in Siem Reap which opened in 2002, it was luxury island Song Saa’s launch in 2012 that was a real game-changer. “Song Saa massively changed things,” says Ray, adding it planted Cambodia on the map for big spenders, with a string of upmarket boutique hotels opening in its wake.

And the country’s luxury segment is on the brink of booming, with a number of international brands gearing up to enter the market within the next few years. Six Senses Krabey Island is set to open later this year off the coast of Sihanoukville, offering 40 sensitively built pool villas dotted across the 30-acre private island.

“These luxury brands are entering the market as they see the potential. This all stems back to Siem Reap and the rise of luxury hotels there,” says Carroll, adding this has led to a demand for similar luxury accommodation across Cambodia so that travellers can “encompass their entire trip in this incredible location.”

Shinta Mani Wild is another example of Cambodia’s growth in this area. As the brainchild of renowned-architect Bill Bensley, the project is slated to open in mid-2018, offering the country’s first luxury camping experience.

Having identified a wildlife corridor connecting Bokor National Park with Kirirom National Park, Bensley set out to protect the 400-acre valley from poaching, mining and logging.

Located along 1.5 kilometres of stunning river and waterfalls, the custom-designed tents and exclusive expeditions offer the potential to further elevate Cambodia as a luxurious destination.

Sahaidak-Beaver says, “What we have seen in recent years is the luxury market starting to expand outside of the main tourist areas and into wonderful areas of the country, and this is only starting. There is huge potential here.”

The Road Ahead

While the government has pinned high hopes on the tourism industry – Cambodia welcomed 5,011,712 international visitors in 2016 and is on track to surpass this in 2017, with 3,109,306 foreign arrivals between January and July – industry experts say it is vital the sector’s future is sensitively mapped out.

Lessons can be learned from the anti-tourism protests that dominated parts of Europe this summer.

In July, more than 2,000 locals marched through Venice demonstrating against the 20 million annual tourists that swamp the city, which is home to 55,000 residents.

This has fuelled anger against rising rents, pollution and the devastating impact of huge cruise ships. Similar demonstrations swept across Spain, which received a record 75.6 million tourists in 2016.

“Tourism in Cambodia, like many countries in the world, is facing the conflict between counting numbers – both in terms of arrivals and dollars – and quality,” says Mark Bibby Jackson, AsiaLIFE publisher and founder of recently launched travel portal, Travel Begins at 40 in part to increase awareness of the possibilities for responsible tourism. “It’s the classical quantity-quality dichotomy.”

The fast pace with which the industry has evolved is also cause for concern, with much of the country’s natural resources and unique wildlife being pillaged to pave the way for development.

“One negative aspect of the fast development of Cambodia is the pressure it creates on its forests and, as a result, its wildlife,” says Niemeijer, who will this month launch Cardamom Tented Camp, an initiative between Minor Group, YAANA Ventures and Wildlife Alliance that combines tourism with the protection of 18,000 hectares of forest in the Cardamom Mountains – a concept that is well-established in Africa, but relatively new in Asia, he adds.

Bibby Jackson believes it is not just the country’s environment but also its culture that is potentially threatened by the tourism spurt. He adds that for tourism to be sustainable and for the benefit of all, it needs to be carried out in a responsible manner, and that this ethos should underlie the country’s tourism efforts.

“Sustainable tourism should not be considered a type of product, but rather an ethos that underpins all tourism activities, as such, it’s integral to all aspects of tourism development and management rather than being an add-on component. Ultimately, it involves a balancing act between the past, present and future, and between the tourist and the host,” he says.

However, he thinks that the country’s relative late arrival on the mass tourism bandwagon leaves it in an ideal location to capitalise on the growing responsible tourism market. “The challenge is ensuring that development comes with responsible actions and respect for the surroundings,” says John Black, general manager of Knai Bang Chatt in Kep.

He adds the town’s tourism industry has worked hard to ensure it doesn’t transform into another Sihanoukville. “The community of Kep is committed to preserving its beauty and with positive messages we believe it’s beauty is sustainable.”

With the industry yet to meet its full potential, and plans in place to tighten up regulation of the sector, it remains to be seen whether tourism makes or breaks the country.

“It is important to think about how to manage the explosion in tourists that is coming,” says Ray. “The government predicts an additional one million in the next two years so it is important that issues, such as environmental protection, are taken very seriously.”