The first phase of Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport (SAI) officially opened this week, on October 16th. While this change coincides with increased tourist interest in the area, the region has yet to recover to its pre-pandemic numbers. Successor to Siem Reap International Airport (REP), this new airport addresses concerns about both capacity and pollution.
Tourism in Siem Reap
The region welcomes millions of tourists annually, many on a mission to visit Angkor Wat, the city temple and UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2018, a total of 6.2 million international tourists entered Cambodia, 2.6 million of which visited Angkor Wat. That year, ticket sales generated over 100 million dollars.
First built in the twelfth century, Angkor Wat was declared a world heritage site in 1992. This mammoth complex was constructed under the Khmer King Suryavarman II, dedicated to Hindu God Vishnu. At almost 163 acres, the temple complex was declared the largest religious monument in the world by the Guinness World Records.
Previously, prospective visitors landed in Siem Reap International Aiport. The airport, with a capacity of 5 million annual visitors, was under heavy stress due to the steady increase in visitors to the region. Naturally, its replacement is designed to combat concerns regarding capacity – SAI is designed to handle up to 7 million passengers annually. By 2050, the airport will have the capacity to welcome up to 20 million passengers a year.
Addressing Air Pollution
The new airport is situated further from the temple complex to mitigate potentially harmful fumes. Concerns were raised regarding fumes from incoming traffic – including aeroplanes – and the potential damage they might inflict on the site. Anne Lemaistre, UNESCO representative of Cambodia, had stated that it was “obvious” that pollution and acid rain would erode the stone. Countless scriptures and carvings are dotted along the walls of the complex’s numerous temples, potentially at risk of being swept away with the influx of tourists to the park.
Siem Reap-Angkor airport’s construction was partially spurred by these concerns, which might suggest it will follow the trend of greatly reducing carbon emissions. Although the airport’s official website is sparse, it is likely the airport will follow other Asian carriers and airports in announcing sustainability goals for the next decade.
Slow but steady projected recovery to Pre-Covid Numbers
Naturally, the Covid-19 Pandemic marked a sharp decrease in tourist numbers to the region. This represented a blow to the country’s economy, and visitors to the region’s previous airport. In 2020, 619 thousand passengers flew into the airport, a marked difference to the 3 million just a year prior. This number saw further decline in 2021, where only 2000 passengers passed through Siem-Reap Airport. Because an estimated 50% of all jobs in Siem Reap serve the booming tourism industry, this represented a major blow to the region’s economy.
Cambodia’s official ministry of tourism reported that beginning 8 months of saw an influx of tourists to Cambodia. Thus far 3.5 million tourists have visited the kingdom, over 80% of which hail from the Asia Pacific region. Minister of Tourism Thong Khon predicted at total visitor count of 5 million by the end of 2023. These numbers mark a significant increase of over 250% in comparison to 2022. Although the Kingdom has yet to return to its pre-covid levels, Mr. Thong predicted a full recovery in visitors by either the end of 2025 or the beginning of 2026.