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Revitalised Angkor Wat brings hope for Cambodia tourism recovery
As dawn breaks, foreign tourists gather by the ancient towers of Cambodia's Angkor Wat, some of the lucky few to see the World Heritage Site with the crowds thin as the country recovers from the coronavirus.
Hopes are high that the temple complex, recently revitalised from repair work, will spearhead a recovery in tourism after the Southeast Asian nation began re-opening to travellers last November.
A handful of overseas visitors are once again roaming the sacred site, with many calling it a unique opportunity.
"I think it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to really see it with such few tourists," Belgian holidaymaker Marjan Colombie told AFP. "It's so different."
On previous visits to the 12th-century ruins she had been forced to jostle with others and endure long queues, she said.
Despite the huge economic cost for Cambodia, the pandemic has been a boon for renovations and conservation work at Angkor Wat.
The government agency that manages the UNESCO site says the shutdown allowed extra time and space for repair work, maintenance and gardening.
"Our temples could rest too," APSARA Authority spokesman Long Kosal said.
Workers fixed crumbling towers and installed a water system to keep the grass green during the dry season.
Local businesses in Siem Reap are now seeing an uptick in bookings after Covid-19 decimated tourism.
Chea Sokhon, general manager of Sarai Resort and Spa -- which closed in April 2020 and laid off its 100 employees -- is rehiring as foreign tourists return.
"It's like we are starting from zero," he said, laying out the challenges he faces.
The businessman, who also sits on the tourism board for Siem Reap, said about 20 percent of hotels in the city have re-opened this year and about 30 percent are preparing.
But he cautioned it would take at least another year for a full recovery.
- 'Overwhelming' -
"Our tour guides have hope again," said local guide Meth Savutha, back on the job after spending the past two years teaching English online to support his family.
Border closures and travel restrictions knocked Cambodia's income from tourism down to just $184 million last year, a far cry from the nearly $5 billion in 2019.
Foreign tourists nosedived to below 200,000 in 2021 from roughly 6.6 million pre-pandemic.
But a comprehensive vaccine rollout and a retreat of the virus have enabled Phnom Penh to resume issuing visas on arrival.
Numbers are now slowly climbing again but remain a long way from pre-Covid figures.
Officials expect 700,000 international visitors this year, fuelled by new daily flights to Siem Reap from Singapore.
For German tourist Hanna, visiting Cambodia for the first time this month, the renovations to Angkor Wat and lack of crowds made it an "overwhelming" experience.
"It's absolutely beautiful and stunning," she told AFP as the sun rose over the historic complex.
"It's just a very unique experience."