In Cambodia’s Siem Reap, a $990 million airport faces hurdles to success | Coronavirus pandemic

Siem Reap, Cambodia – On a dirt road in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province, behind houses and a few miscellaneous shops, construction crews are busy turning an empty rice paddy into an international airport capable of handling 10 million travelers by 2030.

The Cambodian government has touted the Chinese-developed Angkor International Airport project as a boon to the province’s tourism industry, which was suffering from declining visitor numbers even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Authorities have also promoted the $900 million airport, located about 50 km (31 miles) from the city of Siem Reap, as a way to protect the world-famous tourist attraction Angkor Wat, which is suffering from pollution. noise caused by the existing airport nearby.

The project developer has promised to build a highway and a shopping complex in addition to the airport, as part of an effort to attract millions of visitors to the area each year.

The ambitious plan, however, faces a series of significant obstacles, ranging from broken contracts to an uncertain post-pandemic recovery.

Although construction has been slowed by logistical issues related to the pandemic, Sinn Chanserey Vutha, spokesperson for Cambodia’s Civil Aviation Secretariat, said the company Angkor International Airport Investment aims to start operations of the airport. airport by March 2023, with imminent plans to bring in a team to complete the progress of construction and begin the transition away from the province’s former airport.

“The Chinese [teams] are huge, the Chinese have a lot of resources, they are trying to add a lot of resources to the site,” Chanserey Vutha told Al Jazeera.

Angkor International Airport Investment could not be reached for comment, but China’s state-owned Yunnan Investment Group, which is backing the investment, in December urged its Cambodia-based counterparts to speed up construction and meet the deadline. opening of the track by March 2023. .

Broken contracts

The Cambodian government allocated 700 hectares (1,730 acres) for Yunnan Investment Group’s $880 million airport plan in 2018, after promising another company exclusive rights to operate the airport until 2040.

Cambodia Airports, a consortium that manages Cambodia’s airports, is 70% owned by France’s Vinci Airports and 30% by Cambodian-Malaysian company Muhibbah Masteron. It lost control of existing airports in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh after the Cambodian government announced plans to build two new airports.

The Vinci Group spent 100 million euros ($112.62 million) in contractual obligations for existing airports in 2020 and the first half of 2021, according to its 2021 half-year report. Chanserey Vutha said the three airports controlled by Vinci in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap had separate operating conditions.

The Siem Reap contract required the government to compensate Cambodia Airports for canceling the deal, with a task force set up to negotiate payment for the closure of the existing airport in the coming weeks.

Phnom Penh airport, which is being built by the local Overseas Cambodia Investment Company, with financing from the China Development Bank, does not have the same clause allowing another operator to intervene before the end of the existing contract and will therefore be more complicated to negotiate, said Chanserey Vutha.

Asked about the negotiations regarding the end of the Siem Reap and Phnom Penh airport contracts, Cambodia Airports’ communications director, Norinda Khek, did not comment directly on the plans for new airports.

“We are engaging on many issues with the Cambodian authorities and ongoing key discussions with them focus on how to attract international visitors back to the country and promote Cambodia as a safe destination after more than two and a half years. particularly difficult situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Khek told Al Jazeera.

Kaut Yi and Lam Peat complained about salary issues while working on the construction site of the new airport under construction in Siem Reap [Courtesy of Danielle Keeton-Olsen]

Other Chinese public and private investment projects in Cambodia – including a luxury hotel complex and an airport project by Chinese company Union Development Group in Koh Kong province – have been reported by US officials and think tanks for allegedly abusing locals or having secret geopolitical or military objectives. .

Last year, a report by the New York-based Asia Society Policy Institute noted that communities living on land reallocated for the new Siem Reap airport had been offered compensation, but the amounts were low. and residents were unable to stay put. The Chinese embassy met with local NGOs about the project – something that hadn’t happened in many other Chinese-funded projects – but embassy officials said the developers were “responsive” in sharing information, posting banners only after residents request it, according to the report.

Kaut Yi, who works as a cleaner at the airport construction site, told Al Jazeera that she was considering forming a union due to previous issues with receiving timely pay and poor conditions, including having to live in overcrowded, heavily guarded shacks without air conditioning.

“The reason we want to form a union is that we want the union to help us in case we are taken advantage of,” Yi said.

Lam Peat, another worker at the site, told Al Jazeera it was unfair that she earned $8 a day while her male colleagues earned $10.

“We do the same jobs as them, but we get paid differently,” Lam said.

Despite the government’s lofty forecast, Chanserey Vutha, the head of the Civil Aviation Secretariat, said flights were unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels by the airport’s scheduled opening. next year.

Even before the pandemic, flights to Siem Reap were down 12.3% in 2019 from the previous year. In 2020, the World Bank warned that the city’s temples may no longer be enough to attract tourists without more offerings in the city.

‘Emergency plan’

When the Yunnan Investment Group pledged to invest in the airport in 2017, local authorities expected an increase in air traffic, Chanserey Vutha said, adding that his department originally expected a 12 percent increase in the number of passengers. passengers in Siem Reap, even after the drop in arrivals in 2019.

“But now, because of the pandemic, everything is changing, so they have to prepare the contingency plan.”

Brendan Sobie, an independent aviation analyst in Singapore, said he was optimistic about the airport’s target of 30 million passengers in 2030, noting that the old airport had brought in 4.5 million passengers in 2018.

But the airport’s future will depend heavily on China, said Sobie, which has halted most flights under a strict “Zero Covid” policy. Before the pandemic, the city’s existing airport was connected to two dozen locations in China.

Sobie said Siem Reap should diversify as a destination to attract interest from more carriers, especially from other countries.

“No one knows when outbound China will reopen and when that will happen, whether Siem Reap or Cambodia as a whole will be as popular with Chinese travelers as they were before the pandemic,” he said.

Additional reporting by Yon Sineat

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