As tourism flourishes, bringing millions of visitors to Cambodia each year and saturating the well-worn paths of Angkor Wat, travel agencies have had to adapt to not just the rising competition but also the problem of overcrowding.
“ WHEN I ASK OTHERS IN THE MARKET, THEY SAY THAT THE NUMBER OF EUROPEAN TOURISTS IS DROPPING. BUT OUR INTERNAL DATA SHOWS THAT IT INCREASES YEAR AFTER YEAR. ”
-Neav Neary Panhchak Pisey, General Manager, All Dreams Cambodia
While some agencies target the mass-market surge of large tour groups from Asean and Asian countries, All Dreams Cambodia has a refined focus on Europe’s boutique travellers, allowing it to segment the market with niche offerings that cater to individual client needs. “Our company does not want to be a big company, but a unique one,” says general manager Neav Neary Panhchak Pisey, noting that quality is the focus, not quantity.
With Siem Reap remaining the top destination on every tourist’s list, many companies are now carefully identifying the expectations of certain groups of travellers and customising to them. “Europeans don’t like crowded places, even at the hotel. If we know that the crowd there is all Asian, we have to work with our guides to provide them not only accommodation, but also different spots at the temples,” she says.
While the sunrise visit was once a mainstay of any temple tour, Pisey now advises against it. Depending on the client’s preferences, she works with guides to provide unique tours through the Angkor complex. Planned trips have also shifted from mornings to afternoons when the crowds are thin. But the challenge of overcrowding has also created opportunities for other destinations off the beaten path—primarily Battambang, Kratie, the remote northwest provinces of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri, as well as the southern coast.
Tourists who set aside time for Cambodia, rather than see it just an addendum to trips to Thailand, Vietnam or Laos, have sparked interest in these destinations. And this market reaches beyond just backpackers. “For some travellers, they now request longer stays here in Cambodia. They want to connect directly to the people. It is not just a visit to the temples,” she says, adding that this is emblematic in the rise of boutique hotels, eco-tourism and homestays.
However, with a lack of proper infrastructure, these destinations are often out of reach, an onerous day-long bus journey away. An investment in building new roads – something the private sector has little control over – is needed to truly put these inland destinations on the tourist trail, she says.
Flights connecting Phnom Penh and Siem Reap with coastal Sihanoukville – which gives access to Kampot and Kep – are increasing in availability, allowing travellers to access these areas in just a few hours, but with little more on offer than its revered tranquility, Sihanoukville, with few boutique options, is left wanting as a growing tourist destination.
Keeping Their Share
While industry statistics show that arrivals of European tourists have been declining due to economic conditions there and a flagging Euro, through its targeted marketing, All Dreams’ has only seen business grow since launching in 2013. “When I ask others in the market, they say that the number of European tourists is dropping. But our internal data shows that it increases year after year,” she says.
With 15 years in the industry, Pisey says that the great shift away from pre-booked and rigid travel plans, aided by the Internet, provides one of the greatest challenges when dealing with niche markets. And with the Internet providing the forum for displeased customers to publicise their experiences, All Dreams relies on a strong network of select restaurants, hotels, transport companies and local NGOs that it partners with. “Before, Europeans would plan further in advance; last minute bookings present a challenge,” she says.
As the tourism sector continues to boom, Pisey is unsure of the future of the industry in terms of its sustainability for local operators, who are increasingly being squeezed out by foreign tourism operators catering directly to the markets they know well. “The mass market today in Cambodia does not really support Cambodian [businesses],” she says. “Chinese tourists, they just contact Chinese agents. For Korean, Korean. If they do not support other restaurants or hotels besides Chinese or Korean, what is the value for them to come?”
Words and photography by Kali Kotoski