Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Cambodia tourism up 13 percent, but Thais may turn away

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Tourist arrivals in Cambodia soared 13 percent in the first half of 2008, but the tourism minister warned Tuesday that Thais may avoid the kingdom as a border dispute drags on.

Ministry of Tourism statistics showed that nearly 1.1 million foreigners, including 67,502 from neighbouring Thailand, entered Cambodia from January until June, up 13 percent on the same period last year.

"This is a satisfactory increase," Tourism Minister Thong Khon told AFP.

But he said arrivals of Thai tourists were expected to drop after a territorial dispute on their joint border over land near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple, which was listed as a UN World Heritage Site last month.

"We don't expect many more Thai tourists to come because they cannot go see the Preah Vihear temple," Thong Khon said.

Cambodia closed the border crossing from Thailand to Preah Vihear in late June, ahead of the July 15 arrest of three Thai nationalist protesters who tried to illegally cross into Cambodia to reach the temple.

The incident sparked a military stand-off, and more than 1,000 Thai and Cambodian soldiers are now stationed on a patch of disputed land near the ruin.

The tourism ministry did not say how many Thais entered Cambodia at the Preah Vihear crossing this year.

Of all international visitors, more than half flocked to Cambodia's famed Angkor temples in northwestern Siem Reap province, the ministry said.

Those World Heritage-listed ruins have been key in reviving Cambodia's tourism sector since 2003, when a regional SARS panic and anti-Thai riots in the country's capital Phnom Penh drove visitor figures into the ground.

But the government has also begun planning a number of tourism initiatives as part of a broader plan to both keep foreigners in Cambodia longer, and develop some of the country's more impoverished areas.

Tourist arrivals to Cambodia topped two million in 2007, and the sector remains one of the few sources of foreign exchange for the country, where millions live in poverty after decades of civil strife.

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