Fast Company

Flying to Cambodia: A $1 Billion Aerotropolis

The New Siem Reap International Airport is breaking ground next year, backed by South Koreans.

How do you say "aerotropolis" in Khmer? Looks like we're about to find out.

Cambodia will begin construction on its very own airport city next year--the New Siem Reap International Airport, with an adjacent special economic zone, dry port, and 15.4 square mile city--to capitalize on increasing tourist numbers from neighboring countries and increasing foreign investment interest.

The airport will be completed in five and a half years at a cost of $1 billion and the contracted South Korean-Cambodian joint venture, NSRIA Co. Ltd., will operate it for 65 years. The airport, 25 miles east of Angkor Wat, will accommodate 747s, allowing direct flights to arrive from Europe and North America.

An airport city such as Cambodia's fits the label of an aerotropolis--a planned city with an airport as its central node and related infrastructure, businesses, and working families surrounding it. An Aerotropolis thus becomes an engine of local economic development, something Cambodia is desperately in need of.

"It doesn't matter how much they spend on the project, or how much expertise the South Korean investors bring to bear. What matters is how many flights a day the airport has, and to where," says Fast Company contributor and co-author of the forthcoming book, Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next, Greg Lindsay.

"There's a saying that 'airlines don't serve airports; they serve markets,' meaning they want to go where passengers already are," says Lindsay. "In this case, the tourist draw of Angkor Wat could be a big help and considering the United Nations' World Tourism Organization expects China to have 100 million outbound tourists a year by 2020, Cambodia is probably trying to snag a few million."

Cambodia hopes that its very own aerotropolis will help spur local economic development, via foreign investment and the appeal of cheap labor. But the question remains whether there will be enough numbers flying in and out of the country. This year the country saw 2.3 million visitors, but the annual capacity of the new airport will be 15 million, leaving a huge gap to be filled. Where will all the tourists and foreign investors come from?

"With enough flights and enough connectivity, anything is possible," Lindsay tells Fast Company. "The likely model for Cambodia's aerotropolis is Subic Bay in the Philippines, which transformed the former U.S. Navy base into a fairly large high-tech manufacturing zone in the 1990s after FedEx opened its pan-Asian hub there."

As Cambodia is increasingly in competition with its neighbors--namely Vietnam, as well as China, where the first Kashgar-Pakistan cargo flight was just launched this week--it's likely that the country wants to secure its current standing among tourists and its future standing in the realm of trade.

"Vietnam is building its own massive new international airport outside Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok tried to build its own aerotropolis in 2006, only to be derailed by political turmoil," Lindsay points out. "Can Cambodia succeed in winning a piece for themselves? Who knows, but they're certainly willing to try."

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[Image by co-author Dr. John D. Kasarda, from the forthcoming book, Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next]

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