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Cambodia saw five million international tourists in 2016.
Still modest compared to neighboring Thailand's 30 million international arrivals last year, the number is nonetheless impressive for a still-developing tourism industry. Cambodia's tourism growth has been steady.
Both the number of international arrivals and overall tourism receipts have moved consistently upward over the past two decades. Yet, more international visitors fly into what is, in theory, the country's secondary airport, Siem Reap, than fly into the capital, Phnom Penh.
Cambodia has one main attraction, Angkor Wat, but it is now poised to capitalize on its growth by promoting places beyond the temple complex's ancient walls.
It was not a surprise when Cambodia's tourism ministry announced that its first annual travel mart, modeled after Thailand's TTM, would be held in Siem Reap this coming November. Seila Hul, the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Tourism, used a panel discussion at last month's TTM to tout his country's recent tourism successes, to promote Cambodia's upcoming travel mart and to show his ministry's willingness cross-promote with neighboring countries.
A Unique Way to Look at Tourism
Mr. Hul was quick to point out that Angkor Wat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was recently recognized by Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor, which both called it one of the world's best attractions.
However, he went out of his way to look at Cambodia from a different angle: "When you think about 'cultural heritage,' you can think about it in two ways: tangible and intangible."
He spoke about traditional apsara dancing and Khmer puppet shows as examples of "intangible" heritage while Angkor fell into the "tangible" category.
It seems like these cultural elements, which are not just confined to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, are going to play a major role in Cambodia's tourism brand and perhaps bridge the gap between Angkor and the rest of the country.
What Else can Cambodia Offer?
Tourists in Phnom Penh tend to gravitate to one of the more macabre sites in Southeast Asia. Toul Seng Prison was where the brutal Khmer Rouge regime interrogated, tortured and executed anyone who opposed them during their reign in the 1970s.
The city's markets and riverfront, meanwhile, have some big city appeal, while the nightlife and restaurants, though not on par with Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, are developing. Cambodia's beach destinations are decidedly low key compared to other similar places in the region. White sand, seafood and casual resorts dominate. Both the towns of Sihanoukville and Kep were popular with Cambodia's elite during the colonial era and before the Khmer Rouge, and both are making a comeback amongst international tourists and well-heeled Cambodians.
The country certainly does not match Thailand or Indonesia in terms of beach destination diversity, but the classic ambiance and lack of development make both Kep and Sihanoukville attractive.
[READMORE]READ MORE: Why Siem Reap Is Cool for Kids[/READMORE]
The largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap drains into the Mekong River. The depth fluctuates wildly between the rainy and dry seasons. This is a haven for traditional life, with stilt houses and floating villages offering insight into rural Cambodian life.
The lake is home to ethnic Vietnamese and Cham people as well as Cambodians who still engage in traditional industries like fishing and aquaculture.
The mighty Mekong river is also an attraction in every Southeast Asian country that it flows through.
The cruise industry, while still in its infancy compared to neighboring countries, is showing signs of a takeoff with Viking, Avalon and AmaWaterways all operating in Cambodia. River towns like Kratie seem frozen in time with French colonial architecture, teeming traditional markets and an unspoiled tourism scene that still draws the kind of intrepid backpackers who have all but disappeared from major destinations Southeast Asia.
The ruins of a French colonial era casino resort sit on top of a mountain in Preah Monivong National Park. Tourists come to see the views from the highlands and the ghostly ruins of the once-luxurious Bokor Hill Station settlement. A new luxury hotel has been built on the site, and further development is in the works.
[READMORE]WATCH: Discover the Temples Just Outside of KampongCham, Cambodia[/READMORE]
While hyping Cambodia's tourism attractions, Mr. Hul was also keen to highlight the need for easier cross-border travel in Southeast Asia: "If we simplify the border crossing, I'm positive we can draw a lot of attention to our region."
A regional visa was touted heavily at last year's TTM, but nothing has materialized as of yet, and recent tensions on the border between Thailand and China show that there is still a lot to be worked out before such a move can become a reality.
Cambodia has tried to simplify the entry process by offering e-visas, which feature an online application process that currently costs $36 total for a one-month, single entry tourist visa.
This is still an extra step compared to Thailand, where US passport holders simply have to present their travel document to get a one month stamp.
In terms of arrival numbers, tourism infrastructure and number of developed and developing destinations, Cambodia still has a long way to go to catch up with its successful neighbor. However, the attractions are there, as is the approach to branding that should succeed in taking tourists' attention beyond Angkor Wat.
Josh Lew writes about travel, nature, special events and interesting places. His columns currently appear on Mother Nature...
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