Cambodia: Budget travellers will find a welcome in the Kingdom, insiders insist

The airports are ready, the airlines have capacity but will there still be a market for budget travellers when Cambodia reopens its borders? The cost of quarantine hotels, PCR tests for Covid-19, health insurance and a lack of low cost accommodation because of a prolonged downturn may leave backpackers with fewer options. But industry insiders say the Kingdom of Wonder will still give a warm welcome to less well-heeled tourists.

Concerns over the future of low-cost travel were raised when Indonesian officials said they would screen arrivals on the tourist island of Bali to weed out budget travellers.

“We don’t want backpackers coming to a clean Bali. We want quality visitors,” said Indonesian Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan

Jens Thraenhart, who advises the tourism ministries of countries in the region as Outgoing Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Office, says it would be political suicide for Cambodia to follow suit.

“The only way to stop [backpackers] is a policy framework saying whether you can enter the country or not and you have to submit a bank statement or some other documents. I don’t think that will happen,” said Thraenhart who is also the founder of Destination Mekong, a company that promotes travel to Cambodia, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos as a single destination.

“I could see a backlash from the industry. If you are running a bar or hostel that caters to that audience and you pay taxes, if the government says it’s not letting your target market in any more how you would feel? Everyone wants high yield travellers: the Bhutan model where people pay a certain amount and stay a certain amount of time. That’s easy for consultants to say but if you are a minister or prime minister you are looking for votes. If stakeholders are catering to that market and you cut them off, they won’t vote for you,” he said.

Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents, says while the industry has been hit hard by local lockdowns and a lack of foreign visitors, it has the resilience to bounce back.

“It has been two years since the sector started to be impacted,” she said. “More than 3,000 destinations have closed: hotels, spas, massage parlours, discos, beer gardens, more than 60,000 people were working in this sector. Based on the preconditions of this new normal to encourage tourism during and post Covid-19, we thank the government… This has mobilised the private sector to cooperate and collaborate with the Royal Government of Cambodia.”

Even if mainstream hotel options are not available, Thraenhart says house shares and homestays will still offer low cost accommodation and backpackers will not be put off by a lack of choices at major resorts.

“It makes it more attractive because they like to go where no one has gone before. There are sharing platforms like Airbnb and lots of other low cost alternatives. In countries like Cambodia there is always an option like a $5 to $10 homestay and that won’t go away,” he said.

Cambodia may also benefit as a backpacker destination because Indonesia is focusing on top-end travellers and Thailand’s sandbox scheme on the island of Phuket requires tourists to stay in a range of hotels with the cheapest room costing $14 a night.

That may not be a huge amount but a seaview bungalow on Koh Rong, available on Airbnb, costs as little as $9 a night, leaving enough over for a meal or a few beers.