Cambodia on 16 October opened a US$1.1 billion new airport in Siem Reap, the main city close to the Angkor Wat temples, which are the main tourist draw for the country. The first commercial flight into the new Siem Reap Angkor International Airport landed from Thailand as Deputy Prime Minister Vongsey Visoth praised China, which built the airport, at a ceremony Monday. The airport is designed to be a cargo hub and transportation hub, with direct international flights, and a potential capacity of 7 million passengers a year, the Khmer Times reported. It’s located 55 km (34 miles) southeast of Siem Reap town and the nearby Angkor temple complex, whereas the previous, much smaller airport was only about 8 km (5 miles) outside Siem Reap’s centre.
Tourism has been a main pillar of the Cambodian economy, but the number of visitors to the 12th century temples has fallen since the COVID-19 pandemic. There are currently between 1,000 to 1,500 visitors per day, Ministry of Tourism spokesman Top Sopheak told Radio Free Asia. Before the pandemic, there were between 8,000 to 9,000 visitors each day, he said. The new airport could help revive those numbers, he said. “The Ministry of Tourism has not been silent; it has made great efforts,” Top Sopheak said.
But there continues to be evidence of a general decline in the economy in the province’s rural areas and in Siem Reap town, which is home to numerous luxury hotels and smaller guesthouses, all catering to tourists. Some supermarkets and hotels have closed down since 2020, putting thousands of people out of work, according to tourism operator Ang Charles. And almost every street in Siem Reap town has “for sale” signs affixed to homes, cars or plots of land, he said.
In Siem Reap, the Chinese state-owned Yunnan Investment Group has been given the rights to the new airport for 55 years and is also spending US$95 million on a 24 km (15 miles) expressway project that will connect the airport to the rest of the country. A larger surrounding area has been set aside as a special economic zone, Cambodian officials said, according to media reports.
With 38 berths and the ability to manage seven million passengers annually, the airport is poised to increase its capacity to a staggering 12 million passengers a year from 2040. In terms of cargo, the new airport has the capacity to handle 10,000 tonnes of air cargo per year from 2023, increasing to 26,000 tonnes annually from 2040. In addition, the airport can accommodate 65,800 flights per year in 2023, soaring up to 112,700 flights a year from 2040.
Statistics from the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation’s report reveal 3.4 million registered air travellers in Cambodia in the first eight months of 2023. The figure marks a year-on-year increase of 180 percent.