IT’S Christmas Day, and Paul Wallimann, the owner of a popular restaurant near the iconic temples of Angkor Wat, is nervous about serving a table of 16.
Before the pandemic, his cafe would handle as many as 240 people a night, but after two years without tourists, his staff is a little rusty.
“I’m a bit scared for tonight,” said Wallimann, a Swiss native who’s been running the Haven restaurant and culinary training programme for disadvantaged youth for more than a decade. “We’ve had no guests for so long.”
After two gruelling years with few visitors, Angkor Wat and the hotels and restaurants that once thrived off one of South-East Asia’s top tourist attractions are slowly coming back to life.
With 83% of the population fully vaccinated – eighth-best in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University data – and Covid-19 cases down, Cambodia declared itself open to visitors in November.
Singapore Airlines responded with daily flights into nearby Siem Reap a few weeks later, marking the first international arrivals to the city in 20 months. Restaurant bookings are picking up, and a handful of once-empty hotels are seeing a trickle of guests.
The uptick has been slow. About 1,200 people arrived in the latter two weeks of December, based on the almost half-empty flight my wife and I took on a Boeing 737-800.,
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According to data from Vinci Airports, which operates Cambodia’s three major airports, more than 330,000 passengers would have passed through Siem Reap on any given month in 2019.
That signals a slow and gruelling rebuilding period for a city that is as reliant on tourism as they come.
Of Siem Reap’s 140,000 residents, a majority are tied to the trade in some way-feeding, hosting, driving, or selling souvenirs to the 2.5 million people who typically have trekked to the majestic 12th century temples every year.
“Everyone here relies on tourism,” says Wallimann, who often served just one table a day in the depth of the crisis.
With optimism in the air, the question now is whether the hard-hit tourism sector can survive long enough until global travellers again show up in droves.
The stakes in Siem Reap
In Siem Reap, the road from the airport and the strip to the main ruins are now like ghost towns at night. Hotel after hotel sits dark: Of 500 accommodations across the city, fewer than a third are operating.
The standard setters – the Park Hyatt, Shinta Mani, and the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor – remain closed, leaving luxury travellers to choose among limited options that include the Anantara Angkor Resort, Sofitel’s Angkor Phokeethra, and the boutique Jaya House, with 36 rooms along the Siem Reap river.