Cambodia can digitally upskill its workforce and adopt technologies all it wants, but it won’t ever reach its potential as a top tourist destination if it doesn't invest in creative digital marketing campaigns to match.
Cambodia is trying to enhance the digital capabilities of its tourism industry in order to recover from the pandemic and better compete with its Southeast Asian neighbors. The country has taken steps on the workforce and the technology sides, but it still needs to do more on the destination promotion side.
During the pandemic, the industry cratered. The number of tourists to Cambodia fell from 6.6 million in 2019 to 1.3 million in the following year, according to the World Bank.
To reform and rebuild the tourism industry, the ministry launched in 2021 a digital literacy training program and online vocational school. It partnered with Wonderpass, an event management software vendor, to make ticketing and reservation solutions more accessible to industry stakeholders.
A key objective of the government is to work with the private sector to use digital technology to enhance promotion efforts, strengthen management efficiency and make the tourism industry more productive, according to Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Sen’s “2021 Roadmap for the Recovery of Cambodian Tourism During and Post Covid-19.”
“Outside of the main tourist areas or facilities, there needs to be an improvement in people’s literacy with basic IT stuff and introducing tools to make their business life easier and the customers as well,” said G Adventures Director of Operations for South Asia Mark Howarth-Archer. Many hotels, homestays and other establishments still conduct bookings and reservations manually.
Cambodia’s tourism sector has come a long way digitally these past few years. For example, payment transfers have become streamlined and contactless. In the past, tourists very often had to rely on cash. “Compared to a few years ago, almost every vendor, including street food vendors, wouldn’t take a credit card, but now they will do a QR code,” said Howarth-Archer. “They are accepting these new forms of payments like Alipay and transferring through banking apps.”
On the digital marketing front, the country has a lot of work to do. The prime minister acknowledged the lack of “a functioning marketing and promotions that are based on international practices” as an ongoing weakness to be addressed in his roadmap.
“There is no independent tourism board in Cambodia as it stands,” said Nick Ray. The country has the Cambodia Tourism Federation and Cambodian Association of Travel Agents [both didn’t respond to media inquiries], but none of them are tasked with marketing or a budget, said Hanuman Travel Product Director Nick Ray.
“Businesses can promote themselves, but you need a coordinated campaign or a large umbrella to sit under,” Ray said “That’s where we are a bit lacking. We don’t have that strategic vision like you have coming from the tourism authority in Thailand and the budget to back it up.”
The lack of digital marketing could be one reason why Angkor Wat remains the country’s selling point. An “over reliance on Angkor for tourism marketing” was one of the weaknesses of the tourism sector listed by the prime minister in his roadmap.
Cambodia is still not seen as a standalone destination with a variety of beaches, towns, islands, culture and many other attractive offerings, said Ray. “A lot of places don’t get any promotion at all, or very little,” said G Adventures’ Howarth-Archer.
Tourists have to stumble upon Cambodia’s other offerings on their own. “Probably more promotion comes from bloggers passing through [Cambodia], stuff that has not been paid for or organized,” Howarth-Archer said.
So Cambodia is stuck as an add-on for trips to its competitors in Southeast Asia. Its weak air connectivity certainly is one reason why. Cash-strapped airlines haven’t resumed their routes. There are no direct flights with the European or U.S. market. Visitors have to fly through Vietnam or Thailand first to enter Cambodia, said Intrepid General Manager of Cambodia Olivier Marshesin.
“Our biggest vulnerability is being perceived as an add-on or an extension destination and that’s not a good position to be in,” said Hanuman’s Ray. “You are giving Thailand or Vietnam 10 days or 12 days for a holiday. Cambodia or, in fact, only Angkor Wat is getting this little add-on of two or three days. That’s not bringing vast amount of income or benefit to the country.”
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Photo credit: Angkor Wat, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia Paul Szewczyk / Unsplash