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Cambodia opens Chinese-funded airport to serve Angkor temple tourists

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Manet on Thursday inaugurated the country’s new billion-dollar Chinese-funded airport near the Angkor Wat temple complex, saying it would boost the vital tourism sector. Phnom Penh became one of Beijing’s strongest regional allies under former strongman leader Hun Sen, with the Southeast Asian nation receiving huge sums of Chinese investment. Hun Manet, who succeeded his father Hun Sen in August, hailed the Siem Reap Angkor International Airport as “modern” as he cut a ribbon to officially open it. He said it was the first Cambodian air facility developed under Beijing’s Belt and Road global investment project, and the $1.1 billion hub would stimulate tourism. “It is another new historic event for the air transportation sector of Cambodia,” he said. “Our duty is to make this airport work,” he said, “and to make this airport lift the standard of living of the people, to push the Cambodian economy.” The country once had one of the world’s fastest-growing economies — averaging an annual growth rate above 7 percent for two decades before the pandemic. But poverty rates in the lower middle-income nation have yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels, according to the World Bank. China’s Yunnan province governor Wang Yubo also attended the inauguration of the airport, which began commercial operations last month and will eventually handle up to 12 million passengers annually from 2040. Cambodian officials have touted it as a tangible result of Beijing and Phnom Penh’s increasingly close diplomatic relations. Hun Manet met Chinese President Xi Jinping in September and flew to the Chinese capital last month for the Belt and Road forum. The new airport, with a 3,600-metre (11,800-foot) runway, is located about 40 kilometres from Cambodia’s famed Angkor temples park in Siem Reap, the country’s main tourist destination. The city’s old airport was located just five kilometres from the UNESCO world heritage site. Conservationists and officials have long voiced concerns that vibrations from frequent flights there were damaging the foundations of the centuries-old temples. Officials said the new airport poses no threat to the ancient ruins. It will be given to Cambodia in 2073 after 50 years of operations under a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) programme between the two countries. Another huge airport is also under construction outside the capital Phnom Penh, costing $1.5 billion and expected to open in 2025. Tourism is hugely important to the country’s economy, but visitors nosedived to below 200,000 in 2021 from roughly 6.6 million before the pandemic. Cambodia received 3.7 million foreign tourists so far in 2023.

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