The China-funded Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport officially began full operations Thursday, amid mixed feelings in Cambodia about the project and China’s growing influence.
The facility is more than triple the size of the former airport that served Siem Reap, the gateway to the Angkor Wat temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Cambodia’s top tourism draw. Passenger capacity has been increased about 40% to 7 million people.
“This is a result of the ironclad friendship between Cambodia and China,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet said at the airport’s opening ceremony.
Construction began in March 2020, around the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The USD 1.1 billion cost was financed through a consortium of state-owned companies from China’s Yunnan province that will run the facility under a build-operate-transfer deal until 2071.
“We hope to welcome more Chinese tourists in 2024,” said Hun Manet, who looks to take advantage of the new airport’s expanded capacity to spur a recovery in tourism demand.
Several issues remain, one of which is the location. While the old airport was a 10-minute drive from Angkor Wat, the new one is an hour away.
And tourism has only partly recovered from the pandemic, with international arrivals at the old airport from January to September topping out at 330,000 people, roughly a quarter of arrivals in the same period in 2019.
There are concerns among locals about China’s heavy push into infrastructure in Cambodia, which has come to be at the forefront of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
An airport is being built in Phnom Penh to replace the capital’s existing one, and there are plans to renovate Sihanoukville International Airport in the south. Expressway, port and railway projects are also in the works.
Since taking office in August, Hun Manet held meetings with the heads of China Road and Bridge Corp., China Machinery Engineering Corp. and others to push forward the China-backed infrastructure plans.
Existing infrastructure is, in a sense, being overwritten by Chinese projects. France’s Vinci Airports has rights to operate airports in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but with the opening of new airports it is likely to lose out to China.
National Highway 1, which connects the capital and the Vietnam border and was built with Japanese assistance, is being replaced by a wider, Chinese-funded expressway along the same route.
While Cambodia’s dependence on China for economic development has deepened, Chinese organized crime including drug trafficking, human trafficking and illegal gambling is a persistent problem. More than 1,000 Chinese nationals have been arrested in Cambodia in some years.
In contrast to the government’s pro-China stance, locals are increasingly turning against Beijing.
“I’m worried about what’s to come,” said a tourist guide in Siem Reap. “It can’t be stopped now.”