Dispatch from the United Nations Development Program in Cambodia: Markus Hellborg’s third blog from the virtual field

Photo credit: allphotobangkok/Pixabay

By: Markus Hellborg

In 2014, I had the pleasure of travelling to Cambodia and spending two weeks there. At the time, I studied at a University in Shanghai, and my friends and I decided to visit a few countries in South-East Asia during our holidays for the Lunar New Year. We landed in Phnom Penh, where we took tuk-tuks between all the sights and markets we wanted to experience during our few days there. After Phnom Penh, we went via Sihanoukville to the beautiful island of Koh Rong, where we spent a week with white sand and crystal-clear water, before we headed up north to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat; a temple complex dating back to the 12th century (where I took the pictures in my first two blog posts). It was an amazing journey with delicious food, fantastic people, and amazing sights.

The tourism and hospitality sector in Cambodia is the second-largest driver of economic growth, after their construction industry. According to a recent publication by the World Bank, it is estimated that the tourism sector contributed to a whopping 18.7% of GDP in 2019, and 26% of its total exports in 2018[i]. The report also estimates that the sector employed 13.9% of Cambodia’s paid workforce in the same year. In other words, the tourism industry is crucial for the Cambodian economy as a whole and is the livelihood of many thousands of Cambodians.

As mentioned in my first post, Cambodia has had a limited spread of COVID-19 (although there has been some community spread in the past weeks), but this has had a high socio-economic cost. This can be exemplified in the impact the pandemic has had on the tourism and hospitality industry, which has been the hardest hit sector in the Cambodian economy. As a result of global and domestic lockdowns and restrictions, tourist arrivals experienced a 99.6% year-on-year reduction in April. By October, the UN World Tourism Organisation had measured a total decline of arrivals, almost reaching 70% in the first three quarters of 2020[ii]. As a result, there have been reports of widespread job losses in the industry, and people are slipping into poverty. The tuk-tuk drivers that have driven tourists around for decades find themselves in an extreme oversupply, hotel rooms remain empty, and restaurants lack enough costumers to make ends meet.

In facing the pandemic, the UNDP’s evolving COVID-19 response, together with the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC), seeks to address these issues in a quite innovative and exciting way. By focusing on the acceleration of e-commerce in Cambodia, the hope is to use the existing workforce, with minor re-skilling for some professions, to ensure economic activity and job creation for those affected in the tourism sector[iii]. We are looking at a range of areas which can make this happen. In part, the UNDP and RGC are looking into the potential of getting local vendors and restaurants to use online platforms to sell goods and services. Another potential initiative is to use the many tuk-tuk drivers that have seen their business decrease, to deliver goods ordered online within Cambodia’s major cities. In my work, I have contributed with a results-focus to these initiatives, to consider what can be achieved, how we can tie this to our wider mandate, and what potential impacts it can bring about in the long term, extending beyond the context of the pandemic. Witnessing the implementation of these innovative projects and the incredible people working on them is truly inspiring.

As this is my last post, I want to extend my utmost gratitude to BSIA, UN Association of Canada, and UNDP Cambodia for making this wonderful experience a reality. It has been unimaginably educational and inspirational. Hopefully, I will be able to go back to Cambodia at some point in the foreseeable future and meet some of the many colleagues I have only gotten to know virtually.

[i] World Bank, “Cambodia Economic Update: Cambodia in the time of Covid-19,” May 2020, http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/165091590723843418/pdf/Cambodia-Economic-Update-Cambodia-in-the-Time-of-COVID-19-Special-Focus-Teacher-Accountability-and-Student-Learning-Outcomes.pdf

[ii] UNWTO, ”World Tourism Barometer,” October 2020, https://www.e-unwto.org/doi/epdf/10.18111/wtobarometereng.2020.18.1.6

[iii] UNDP, “Beyond Recovery: Towards 2030,” 2020, https://www.kh.undp.org/content/cambodia/en/home/coronavirus/support-to-national-response.html


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