“Just survive”: for Cambodian tourism, the recovery out of sight | Coronavirus pandemic News


Siem Reap, Cambodia – Chheut Dina was only days away from her reduced cleaning shift at Siem Reap International Airport when told not to return to work.

After 10 months with virtually no tourism, the airport broke her contract with Dina’s employer in December 2020, forcing her to cut her family’s expenses by seven and refinance an $ 11,000 loan she had. contracted before the pandemic. HCC Angkor, a cleaning company majority-owned by French company Vinci Corporation, previously reduced the employment of Dina and her colleagues to just one month a year due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“Sometimes my kids, when they don’t have to study, go to the pond, stream or lake to catch fish, snails and vegetables, so we spend less. [before] but we are eating less well than before, ”Dina told Al Jazeera.

With the support of her union, Dina and other HCC workers complained to the company, frustrated that management refused to confirm whether they had been fired or just suspended.

The uncertainty surrounding their future is particularly frustrating since the airport began receiving international flights after the country’s borders reopened to vaccinated tourists last month.

“If they want to fire us from the contract, they have to pay us appropriate compensation according to the law, then we can look for other employment opportunities or get compensation,” Dina said. “It creates a blurry picture, we don’t really know what’s going on.”

Siem Reap invests in new infrastructure as it tries to attract tourists during pandemic [Courtesy of Danielle Keeton-Olsen]

Although Cambodia has reopened its doors to international travelers, its tourist hub of Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still relies on its dependence on foreigners and on the long road and road. unpredictable towards the end of the pandemic.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen lifted quarantine measures for all vaccinated travelers on November 15 – a step beyond reopening Thailand, which this week reintroduced seven to 10 days of quarantine for foreign arrivals, to except those who visit the “sandbox” of Phuket, in response to the Omicron a variant.

Arrivals, however, have been rare. Before Singapore Airlines resumed service last week, the city’s airport had not seen a single international flight in 20 weeks.

Even before the pandemic, Siem Reap, which relied heavily on since-missing Chinese tourist groups, was showing signs of fatigue, with Angkor Archaeological Park ticket sales down 8.3% in 2019 from the previous year. previous year, according to the World Bank.

Khek Norinda, director of communications for Cambodia airports, said visitors to Al Jazeera fell 12.4% in 2019 from 2018, before falling further during the pandemic. Before Singapore Airlines resumed service last week, the city’s airport had not seen a single international flight in 20 weeks.

While predicting a gradual recovery, Norinda said the airline’s return showed there was still an “appetite” to visit Siem Reap.

“Also, the experience of visiting temples without crowds or fuss might work in his favor,” he said.

Thourn Sinan, the Cambodian representative for the Pacific Asia Travel Association, told Al Jazeera that the government has not clearly communicated its pandemic policies, making it difficult for its industry to respond.

“They have very good planning” for the industry in general, he said. “But on the other side with the era of the pandemic [continuing], they can’t decide what to do.

Chheut Dina has not had a stable job since December 2020 [Courtesy of Danielle Keeton-Olsen]

During the pandemic, the provincial government sought to beautify the city, widening roads and creating gardens and walking paths in front of Angkor Wat, the impressive multi-level temple stamped on Cambodian currency.

Many businesses near the famous attraction – which is surrounded by family-friendly restaurants, clothing stalls, and artists displaying paintings and other memorabilia – complain that the renovations have cost them customers.

A beverage vendor outside of Angkor Wat told Al Jazeera that small businesses are struggling, despite a spirit of collaboration among vendors who have decided to stay in the park.

She said she felt guilty for charging a tenant $ 150 a month on her property: “I want to get all the money [I can] but I am not happy, because for them it is not easier than for us.

Sinan, the representative of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, said he doubts Cambodia tourism will return to pre-pandemic levels for five to seven years, despite the knowledge of tour operators who have invested in their business due to the reopening of borders.

“The new investments they [businesses] put, this is probably the last investment [possible] for them, but if there is no investment from international tourists for them, they will continue to lose, ”he said.

Toward the start of the pandemic, the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training promised to provide workers on leave in the tourism and garment industries $ 40 per month and to require employers to pay an additional $ 30 per month. Besides criticism, there was not enough support, union leaders complained that many workers were being excluded from aid.

Dina, the airport housekeeper, said she was unable to receive COVID-19 support payments or health care through the national social security fund, which made difficult to pay for medical expenses for elderly parents.

“Sometimes we don’t have the money for it, so we borrow to put it in place to do it,” she said.

Angkor Wat vendors took a hit during pandemic [Courtesy of Danielle Keeton-Olsen]

Norinda said Cambodia’s airports were seeking to prioritize the welfare of its staff during the pandemic, but “unfortunately” had to sever relations with the HCC in Siem Reap.

With Cambodia reporting few cases of COVID-19 – there have not been more than 25 infections a day since early December – domestic tourism, especially to ecotourism sites, has brought slight relief to the industry.

Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents, told Al Jazeera that more domestic visitors visit temples in Siem Reap, but tend to spend less than foreign tourists.

“The travel culture of Cambodians [is that they] don’t feel the need to hire tour guides and don’t need the help of local travel agents, ”she said.

Sinan said he did not believe the city could count on the return of Chinese tourists, who were more interested in living a COVID-free life in China than in the “new normal” elsewhere.

He said Southeast Asian countries could fill the void if they learned from Europe, where many residents spent their summer vacations with vaccine passports.

“I think ASEAN should be able to recover quickly in terms of tourism if ASEAN [members] can be trusted, ”he said.

“While waiting for the tourists”

For now, the people of Siem Reap must make the most of the difficult circumstances.

Before the pandemic, Doung Visith made $ 50 every time he led a tour of Angkor Wat. These days, Visith, who has a part-time job at a hotel company, spends his mornings trying to convince locals to hire him for a short sunrise visit for $ 20, before spending the day afternoon inviting visitors to the newly renovated restaurants and shops in front of the temple.

While he appreciates the park’s tidy facade, he wishes there were foreign tourists to see it.

“We are just surviving, waiting for the tourists to come back,” he said.


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