A billion-dollar Chinese-funded airport began operations in Cambodia Monday, with local officials hoping it will revive the vital tourism sector. Phnom Penh became one of Beijing’s strongest regional allies under former strongman leader Hun Sen, receiving huge sums of Chinese investment. Cambodian ministers welcomed the first commercial flight from Bangkok at the 3,600-metre (11,800-foot) runway at Siem Reap Angkor International Airport (SAI) on Monday. The $1.1 billion hub, built on 700 hectares of land, will handle up to 12 million passengers annually from 2040. “This achievement will be a key factor in boosting the recovery of tourism in Cambodia,” Deputy Prime Minister Vongsey Vissoth said during a ceremony at the new facility. Mao Havannall, head of the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation, touted it as “a historic milestone” for Cambodia — as well as a tangible result of the two nations’ increasingly close diplomatic relations. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet and a top Chinese leader are expected to officially open the airport next month, officials said. Hun Manet, who succeeded his father Hun Sen in August, met Chinese President Xi Jinping last month. The Cambodian leader is currently in the Chinese capital for the upcoming Belt and Road Initiative forum. SAI airport is located roughly 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temples, the country’s main tourist destination. Tourism is hugely important to the country’s economy, but visitors nosedived to below 200,000 in 2021 from roughly 6.6 million pre-pandemic. Cambodia received 3.7 foreign tourists so far in 2023.