Over the past decade, tourism has grown in leaps and bounds in the Kingdom, which now offers varied travel experiences, from its coasts to its countryside, for increasingly diverse visitors. As high season starts, writer Joanna Mayhew takes a look at the booming sector. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
At Cambodia’s southern shoreline, waves lap gently against one of Kep’s most prestigious and relaxing escapes – Knai Bang Chatt. The resort’s manicured lawn is dotted with cosy lounge chairs perched under aged, overgrown trees, and edged with a silky, opaque infinity pool. Throughout its colourful villas, no finishing touch is overlooked: the scent of frangipanis wafts through the 18 rooms, each uniquely designed with understated teak wood beds and rustic vases; and daily chef’s treats await guests for sunset viewings of the gulf from their balconies.
Started as a private holiday house in 2003, Knai Bang Chatt gradually evolved into a hotel, opening to the public in 2006. Set in remodelled and expanded villas from the architectural heyday of the 1960s, the resort combines the nation’s rich history with its current refined offerings, which rival any in the region.
Kep, too, is a microcosm for the country’s larger trends. The sleepy town has undergone drastic changes, emerging from its tumultuous past as a Khmer Rouge stronghold, to draw a steady stream of visitors, including locals, long-term expats and global tourists, with its ever-expanding guesthouses and crab shacks.
When Knai Bang Chatt CEO Jef Moons first arrived in 2003, there were very few outsiders. “I was white face number four,” he says. “It was pure adventure.” At that time, there were just 700,000 yearly tourists – and in 1993, when the country was re-opening, only 118,000 visitors arrived. Last year, Cambodia received more than 4.5 million tourists, representing a fourfold increase in the last decade. This year, the country is bracing for 5 million.
From its southern beaches to its northern hills, the country now has serious pull for travellers. With spa and meditation retreats, quad bike escapes, luxury river cruises, wilderness expeditions, horseback outings, and sailing and dive trips, there is little the Kingdom does not offer. “Diversity is one of the things that makes it so amazing,” says Carrol Sahaidak-Beaver, executive director for the Cambodia Hotel Association.
“You have to recognise the very high potential of Cambodia,” adds Try Chhiv, the government’s deputy general director of tourism, noting that the country’s recent relative stability has been a driving force for tourism. Visitors can also get more bang for their buck, he says, by dining in high-end restaurants and touring the country at a fraction of the cost of other Southeast Asian nations.
Much of the recent growth in tourism is also due to improvements in road and air connectivity. “As the roads open, so business development has followed, which has created tourism opportunities,” says Sahaidak-Beaver. “It’s gone out in waves.”
Increased direct flights, particularly across Asia, have contributed, with a second airline linking Hong Kong and Siem Reap as of August, as well as more domestic flights connecting visitors between Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap. Also in August, the Cambodian and New Zealand governments made an air services agreement, as a first step towards establishing direct flights between the locations. And recently, Cambodia partnered with neighbouring Thailand to offer a single-visa option for tourists planning to visit both countries.
To keep up, both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap international airports are currently expanding their terminals, as part of a $100 million program launched in 2014 to double their capacity to 5 million passengers each, according to the Cambodia Airports. As part of the upgrade – and perhaps the most indicative symbol of growth – Starbucks will make its Kingdom debut, with a café set to open in Phnom Penh airport’s new wing this month.
While tourism development is occurring across the country, nowhere is this more evident than its coastlines and outlying islands, which entice backpackers and high rollers alike.
Opened in 2011, Song Saa was the country’s first luxury private island, offering 27 all-inclusive villas perched amongst rainforests and tropical reefs, and costing $1,400-$5,000 per night, depending on room type and season. Joining the lavish circle will be a new private island, Akaryn, set to open in 2016. According to the company, the “six-star” resort boasts 40 villas and a wellness centre, and suggests its guests travel by private jet from Bangkok to Sihanoukville to reach the island.
“The opportunity to have an entire island for development is rare,” says branding and communications director, Eugene Oelofse, adding special measures will be introduced to protect the untouched tropical rainforest that sits on the secluded island.
On land, Knai Bang Chatt also caters to well-heeled visitors, but Moons notes this is only a slither of the country’s guests. “Not everyone coming to Cambodia is a high-end traveller.”
The remainder are flocking to less-exclusive islands, such as Koh Ta Kiev, Koh Rong Sanloem, Koh Russei and Koh Rong. The lazy escapes, with white sand beaches and turquoise waters, can compete with many of Thailand’s better-known islands. But in the past few years, the untouched paradises have gradually drawn bigger crowds from Sihanoukville’s party town.
“It has changed drastically,” says Paddy Robinson, owner of Koh Rong’s Monkey Island resort, which was one of only two guesthouses on the beach when it opened five years ago. Today, lodging options line the shore, and up to 400 people come to and from the island daily, estimates Robinson. Even television’s longest-running reality show, Survivor shot two seasons at the tropical location this year, a move the government hopes will further promote tourism.
Inland, riverside Kampot town is making an equal name for itself, rising as a foodie destination and offering kayaking, rock-climbing and stand-up paddle boarding. It also benefits from proximity to the capital, taking just over two hours by taxi.
The coastal areas are gradually making up a larger portion of tourists’ destinations, drawing numbers away from the country’s traditionally dominant attraction – Angkor Wat. In the first half of 2015, almost 14 percent of travellers visited these areas, compared to 44 percent in Phnom Penh, 41 percent in Siem Reap, and just over one percent in eco-tourism locations.
Still, Angkor’s temple complex remains the Kingdom’s biggest draw – with hoards of guests each day clamouring through the 9th to 15th century temples.
“Without stating the obvious, it’s spectacular,” says Jeff Strachan, owner of Siem Reap bed and breakfast, Maison 557. “It’s a unique experience – being Indiana Jones and Angelina Jolie, running through the temples,” adds Magnus Olovson, general manager for Heritage Suites Hotel.
Earlier this year, Siem Reap was voted the number one destination in Asia, and the second in the world, in TripAdvisor’s 2015 Travellers’ Choice Awards. And well-known hotels, such as Anantara and Marriott, are entering the city. “Brands aspire to be here, and that speaks volume,” says Strachan.
But the area is experiencing its own transformation, with the traditional market of European and North American visitors steadily outnumbered by a new Asian market. “The growth has been mainly Asian, and mainly in tours,” says Olovson.
Overall, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Japanese guests top the country’s tourist numbers, says Chhiv. The government is also promoting inter-Southeast Asia travel, and aiming to attract additional Chinese tourists. Strachan estimates that in 2014, Siem Reap saw 900,000 South Korean arrivals and 850,000 from China. “Without a doubt, the tipping point has passed. There’s no turning back,” he says. “Now the challenge is balancing the march of the Asian tiger.”
Hoteliers say the changes have caused conflict within the tourism space, as different markets have different preferences, particularly when comparing Asian tour groups and independent European travellers. Managing these differences is crucial due to the town’s small size, and today’s instant Internet feedback. In response, industry professionals are urging the government to prioritise high-spending visitors over high visitor numbers. “You should want both, but you have to find a way to make that work,” Strachan adds. “So everybody talks positively about Siem Reap.”
Further afield, and for the more adventurous traveller, Cambodia has an increasing number of off-the-beaten track options. In far-flung and mercifully cooler Ratanakiri province, rolling hills and powerful waterfalls beckon exploring, and visitors can choose between dirt bikes and elephants for getting around. A dip in the area’s serene and sacred Yeak Loam volcanic crater lake – almost perfectly round and surrounded by dense forest – alone makes the trip worthwhile.
In Koh Kong province’s Chi Phat, guests can sleep in hammocks strung up beside the top of the mighty O’Malu waterfalls, after a daylong trek through the Cardamom Mountains. Chi Phat is one of the country’s better-known community-based ecotourism projects, along with Kampong Speu-based Chambok. The Kingdom has become the leading country for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on community-based ecotourism standards, due to its success in implementing these projects, says Chhiv. Member countries have now endorsed these standards.
Guests can also explore Koh Kong’s majestic Areng Valley through multi-day eco-adventure tours by local non-profit organisation Mother Nature, with mountain biking, hiking, kayaking and camping along the winding river. The lush valley, which has been under threat of a long-proposed and controversial hydropower dam, boasts some of Cambodia’s most elusive wildlife, from Siamese crocodiles and dragonfish to king cobras and gibbons. “The Cardamom Mountains offer the best of Cambodia,” says Nick Marx, director of care for rescued animals at NGO Wildlife Alliance, which runs a series of eco-tourism ventures in the area. “Here, nature is at its finest, there is a wealth of rare flora and fauna, and it’s a real adventure in real Cambodia.”
The Kingdom also boasts an increasing number of adventure sport offerings, such as wakeboarding, and zip-lining over Angkor park or through Mondulkiri province’s Bou Sra Waterfall. “Cambodia is an emerging destination, so we still have authenticity,” Chhiv says. “This can attract people, to experience the real Cambodia – and the warm hospitality of the people and culture.”
With predictions of a continued upswing in tourism, the government hopes to receive 8 million visitors by 2020, according to Chhiv. But with great growth comes great challenges. Already, Siem Reap hoteliers say the boom is adversely affected by infrastructural problems, such as electricity cuts and infrequent garbage collection. “We’re seeing a very unregulated, after-the-thought process to build a tourism city,” says Strachan.
And hotel registration has lagged, with less than 500 registered but more than 2,000 on Agoda, says Sahaidak-Beaver. In addition, hotels and tour operators face a shortage of skilled staff, which may become a larger problem as Cambodia merges economically with ASEAN at the close of the year.
Perhaps more importantly, the country’s tourism development seems to focus exclusively on growth, at the cost of coordinated expansion and environmental sustainability. “More people doesn’t necessarily equal more money into the community, [and] better experiences,” adds Strachan.
Many businesses have taken matters into their own hands by incorporating environmental and social programs for sustainable tourism. Knai Bang Chatt’s Hand in Hand project partners with a non-profit organisation and has provided almost $1 million to improve education, health and livelihoods in the resort’s neighbouring communities. And Song Saa’s conservation and community program launched Cambodia’s first marine reserve, established a solid waste management facility, and supports research on the country’s marine environment, to protect the coastal ecosystem as tourism rises.
But tackling the issues will take coordination across the industry, which is why networks such as the Cambodia Hotel Association exist. “If one of those keys is not in tune, it all sounds bad,” says Sahaidak-Beaver.
The government is also attempting to lead the charge, by providing short- and long-term plans, and setting ASEAN-recognised standards for clean cities and for the training of industry professionals.
With kinks still left to work out, the country remains a work in progress. But this may not be entirely bad. “That’s why people travel here,” says Moons. “To see something developing.”