WHEN Société Concessionaire des Aéroports, the French company that runs Cambodia’s airports, announces its new calendar for the high season on Wednesday, expect additional flights and new routes that should help expand the industry.
But although international connections are set to rise and diversify, domestic flights remain as limited as ever.
Air France will feature at the end of the new November-March after announcing connecting flights from Europe to Phnom Penh due to begin on March 27.
In addition, Air Berlin is set to start a code-share deal with Bangkok Airways to the Cambodian capital and, from November 1, will offer online bookings on this new service with connections through Bangkok to major European cities.
From next month, Bangkok Airways will also start one additional morning flight between the Thai capital and Phnom Penh, all of which is hugely encouraging in terms of getting international travellers to Cambodia.
But what about Sihanoukville, and, indeed, competition on the Siem Reap-Phnom Penh route, both key problem areas for the industry?
Although SCA has been negotiating for some time with various airlines to fly to three newly renovated Sihanoukville airport, it is not expected to announce scheduled flights to Cambodia’s leading beach resort for the next high season, providing a major disappointment for the industry unless the new national carrier Cambodia Angkor Air agrees to fly there.
It certainly should do so.
Sihanoukville will only develop as a tourist destination if the new airport takes off, so surely CAA – as the new national carrier – has to take the initiative to become the first to fly there.
This could start a cycle that would hopefully lead more tourists to visit Sihanoukville, and then more airlines to take a leap of faith as the resort developed.
Sihanoukville last year recorded a 66 percent rise in the number of international tourists arriving by boat.
This is a sign that government efforts to raise the port’s profile as a cruise destination is starting to pay off.
But outbound tourism from the port fell to zero last year, and overall numbers to Sihanoukville declined – 6.6 percent fewer international tourists visited in 2009 despite a 1.7 percent rise in total arrivals to Cambodia.
Clearly Sihanoukville is in desperate need of those flight connections.
Sihanoukville airport could also serve as a gateway to nearby Kep and Kampot – which are located only about two hours away by road – as both are soaring in popularity.
Kep attracted more than double the number of international tourists last year compared to 2008, and arrivals in Kampot were up 32 percent, according to government data.
Why isn’t CAA supporting these newly emerging destinations, especially given that Cambodia’s new flag carrier is understood to be partly government-run?
The surging prices on CAA’s route from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh amid nonexistent carrier competition is equally debilitating for Cambodian tourism.
Whereas the new airline offered special promotion fares between Cambodia’s two biggest tourism destinations after launching in July last year, now a round trip for foreigners usually costs more than US$200 when airport tax is factored in.
That route across the Kingdom must rank as one of the most expensive internal flights in the region per kilometre.
Given that government officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, have repeatedly talked up CAA’s financial performance since it launched
its maiden flight last year, the lack of risk and high prices employed by the new airline appear to be a serious miscalculation.
Bringing tourists to Cambodia is one thing, but persuading them to stay for longer periods and see more of the country is another, equally important, part of developing the tourism industry.
That means more could, and should, be done.