Since Chinese businessman Wu Yuwen launched the first charter flight in June linking Sihanoukville, a Cambodian port city and Jieyang, a small city in southeast China, regular trips on the route have increased from one to six per week.
As of late August, the route has a passenger load factor of over 90 percent from Jieyang Chaoshan International Airport, and the percentage of the return trip from Sihanouk International Airport has reached 80 percent.
Wu said market research indicates a profit if the passenger load factor reaches 70 percent. "The real number is far beyond our expectations," he said.
Wu, born in 1986, has spent more than a decade in cross-border trade, furniture manufacturing and hotel management in Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam, but the airline industry is fairly new to him.
The bold idea of opening a commercial air route connecting Sihanoukville and Jieyang, his hometown in China's Guangdong Province, came to him at the beginning of the year.
It is the big change in Sihanoukville in recent years that inspired him to venture into something new. "Sihanoukville is like the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone of China 40 years ago," Wu said.
The fledging industrial parks in the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone (SSEZ) are full of energy, with a growing number of businessmen and women seeking new opportunities. Yet for Wu and many others, the problem is ensuring a tough journey to reach Sihanoukville.
Before the direct flight from Jieyang, Wu had to take a three-hour high-speed train to the capital city of Guangzhou, and then took a flight from Guangzhou to Phnom Penh in Cambodia before driving five hours to Sihanoukville.
"It's a waste of time, and very exhausting," Wu said. Furthermore, his company had to keep a business convoy both in Guangdong and Cambodia for commuting.
The SSEZ, jointly established by China and Cambodia in 2008, experienced a boom after the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2013.
As of August, a total of 125 companies from all over the world have invested in the SSEZ, including 108 Chinese companies. Their all-around business creates over 21,000 local jobs, according to SSEZ President Chen Jiangang.
Since many Chinese entrepreneurs investing in Cambodia come from Wu's hometown Jieyang and two nearby cities of Shantou and Chaozhou, commuting missions for his convoys consequently increased a lot. "It's an unbearable burden," he sighed.
The burden told Wu that there was an urgent need for a direct route linking airports in Sihanoukville and Jieyang.
After months of preparation, Wu officially reached an agreement with Cambodia Sky Angkor Airlines to open a direct charter flight from Jieyang Chaoshan International Airport to Sihanoukville. The one-way journey takes only two and a half hours.
Today, there are regular flights from the airport to Cambodia on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoons, and a large number of people are business passengers.
As the market is booming, Lanmei Airlines of Cambodia has also joined the charter route, increasing the number of flights on the route to six per week.
Jieyang Chaoshan International Airport now has flights to eight destinations in Southeast Asia. Its growth is reflecting a big picture that China's civil aviation industry is drawing.
According to the Civil Aviation Administration of China, for the 2018 summer-autumn aviation season, a total of 29 Chinese airlines operated regular round trips from 47 cities in China to 81 cities in 37 countries along the Belt and Road. The number of flights per week reached 2,849.
At the same time, there are 90 airlines from 37 countries along the Belt and Road operating regular flights from 84 foreign cities to 52 Chinese cities, with more than 2,346 flights per week.
For now, the SSEZ, under the Belt and Road Initiative and the Cambodia Industrial Development Policy 2015-2025, is trying to establish itself as a fully functional model of industrial parks with 300 resident companies and 80,000 to 100,000 workers, Chen told Xinhua.
As the Sihanouk International Airport is actively improving airport facilities for storage and transportation, Wu also has plans for his new business. "I'm confident that in the future I'll start a cargo transportation business," he said.
(Zhang Xin and Mao Pengfei also contributed to the story.)