Back to business as Cambodia leads regional tourism reopening

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Back to business as Cambodia leads regional tourism reopening

By Virginie Kury

When Asian Trails’ CEO Laurent Kuenzle asked me to write the next article in the CEO story series, I felt both thrilled and proud.

I was thrilled to be able to share with our beloved clients and followers news of our achievements and the success of our recent operations after what can only be described as a turbulent two-and-a-half years.

I was also proud, not just for myself, but also for a company that has emerged from the lockdown stronger than ever. I’m extremely proud of my Cambodia team. They have retained their tireless passion for delivering the best services to our clients. Their know-how on how to drive major operations on the ground has enabled a successful return to business.

As I look forward to more positive times, I have also taken time to reflect on the people in our industry who have suffered and continue to suffer from a loss of business caused by COVID-19. I am sending these people the positive message that tourism is slowly but surely returning to pre-pandemic levels.

This has been aided by the Cambodian government’s policies. The Phnom Penh administration has shown true leadership in its management of the pandemic situation and yet it has been discreet on its achievements. The government facilitated one of the highest levels of inoculation in the region and Cambodia was the first country in South-East Asia to reopen without pre-travel and on arrival COVID testing. This approach led the way for other regional nations to follow.

On December 17, we achieved another milestone by welcoming the first international flight to land at Siem Reap Airport in 21 months. It was a big deal and hundreds of citizens went to the airport to welcome the passengers. It was awesome to see all the suppliers, ground providers and competitors gathering together with immense joy to welcome tourists back to the country.

This is why our work is driven by passion, where people sit at the heart of our daily actions. I always say it is only through working together as a team that we can achieve greatness and this is what I try to put into practice every day.

This is why my team deserves immense recognition. Appreciation is also due to the unwavering support of our local partners and suppliers. We are lucky to be surrounded by such dedicated people.

It is due to this great partnership between my team and the ground suppliers that we are able to provide such meaningful journeys for those visiting Cambodia. Furthermore, we would be nothing without the support of our clients – in particular those who show confidence to travel far during uncertain times.

A warmer than ever welcome awaits those who visit Cambodia as we return to travel normality. Visitors have the opportunity to discover unfrequented paths in remote corners of the country and with fewer crowds. There is also the opportunity to visit amazing temples that have reopened for exploration. It is a profound experience to sit among ancient relics and the huge roots of trees that are thousands of years old in total solitude, with only the sound of singing birds.

As we entered 2022 after years of lockdown and uncertainty, I never thought someone would hear me say: ‘I am travelling too much!’ but this has happened.

This first quarter has been busier than ever for me. Week after week, I’ve found myself more frequently on the road than in the office as I made journeys across Cambodia for inspection and familiarisation trips and to accompany leisure clients and MICE groups.

One day, I woke up in front of turquoise water and a pristine white sand beach in Koh Rong where we were hosting a group. After immersion in this idyllic scenery, I quickly embarked on a mammoth trip. I took a boat, a bus, a plane to Phnom Penh and a tuk-tuk home where I exchanged dirty clothes for fresh ones and I then went to the office to sort out urgent business.

After catching up with office matters, I drove six hours to Siem Reap, arriving at night, so I could personally welcome a new group the next morning. At this point, I was left wondering why I was paying rent for an apartment!

What forces me to leave my desk so frequently is the unexpected number of groups that we have hosted over the last few months. Among our projections, we predicted luxury and individual travel to be the first to bounce back. However, in reality, we have received many large groups.

In February, Asian Trails achieved a milestone when it was chosen to manage the biggest MICE group to arrive in Cambodia since the onset of COVID-19. We had to quickly bring out our ‘A’ game plan to make sure our clients felt privileged.

Being back in direct contact with visitors is invaluable as it gives me immediate access to feedback and this enables our team to make improvements where necessary and maintain our very high standards of service delivery.

The visitors I meet often say that I have the best job in the world. I am in total agreement with this sentiment. I love the variety of tasks within the travel industry; no day is identical to the other and I get to experience new places and meet an interesting range of people along the way.

What people fail to see though is what goes on behind the scenes; the challenge of combining travel with office work, following up on projects, replying to emails, meeting deadlines and solving problems – which typically seem to occur when one is away.

Throw into the mix a lack of sleep and being kept away from my daily fitness regime and it can be a challenge. It is good news, therefore, that I’m always up for a challenge – plus, I’m in my element when meeting new people and there’s an abundance of opportunities to socialise in my role.

Some will say this is all part of the deal. This is true and I enjoy this life, especially the surprises. I particularly love being surprised by members of my team when they do something that exceeds my expectations, or achieve results in a totally different way than I would have thought of.

I also love being surprised by our suppliers, particularly hotels’ heads of department who sometimes have connections at the highest level. During a recent FAM trip we organised, oh wow! I was totally surprised. As they read this, the people involved will recognise themselves. They got to enjoy lunch in the company of an esteemed member of the Cambodian royal family.

Imagine our clients returning home after the unique experience of eating lunch with a princess. Other memorable group activities include wearing traditional yukata robes for a Japanese-themed dinner and cocktails served in the middle of a rice field at sunset. These were magnificent events that we felt privileged to share with clients.

This is the reason why I am so passionate about my job. I love admiring the look of joy painted on clients’ faces as they discover the marvels of this incredible land, or their reaction to a kind gift from a hotel that carved their company logo onto a beautiful piece of wood. This is the ultimate recognition and why I enjoy sharing this country with our visitors. Cambodia, the ‘kingdom of wonder’ is packed full of surprises and it is back in business!

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