One early afternoon in mid-December, after a 45-seat bus hired by Lotte Tour carrying nearly 20 South Korean tourists stopped at Marble Mountains in the central city of Da Nang, a Vietnamese woman in her 20s, wearing a tour guide’s badge, stepped down and bought entrance tickets for the group.
But she barely spoke anything throughout the trip as the tourists visited places like Quan Am Cave and Tam Thai Pagoda before leaving for Thanh Ha pottery village and the Hoai River in nearby Hoi An.
This was because the actual guide was a South Korean man named Kim Sung Young.
The Vietnamese woman was hired to deal with the authorities since under Vietnamese law, foreign companies can bring tourists into the country only by partnering with local firms and have to use local tour guides.
But Lotte Tour, based in South Korea, does not have a tie-up with any Vietnamese travel company, Huynh Duc Trung, head of the travel management division at the city Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, told Tuoi Tre newspaper.
“This company has violated the law.”
Like Lotte, many other South Korea-based travel companies sell full-package tours and hire some Koreans in Da Nang to serve the tourists.
They usually pay a Vietnamese to accompany the group and buy entrance tickets to avoid attention, the newspaper said.
Many Chinese travel companies use the same strategy to illegally bring tourists to Da Nang.
“These companies sell tours to Da Nang to Chinese on Taobao website though they are not licensed to do so,” an unidentified Vietnamese woman, who works for a five-star Chinese-owned hotel, told the newspaper.
When the visitors arrive in Da Nang, they are received and taken to hotels by their countryman, the woman said, adding that some Vietnamese who can speak Chinese take the tourists around the city though they are not licensed as tour guides.
Tran Chi Cuong, deputy director of the Da Nang Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, confirmed that the illegal tours and guides are a fact.
He said his agency this year fined two unlicensed South Korean guides VND15 million (US$677) each and coordinated with the police to expel five other South Koreans from Vietnam for illegally organizing tours in Da Nang.
Illegal tourism services are a problem not only in Da Nang, but also, for years, at other popular destinations like Ha Long, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Nha Trang.
Many local travel companies have complained that they cannot compete with illegal, cheap tour operators who do not pay taxes.
An unnamed director of a tour operator in Da Nang said many South Koreans and Chinese companies use tricks to pretend they have local partners.
“They hire the red stamp from some local travel firms at $20 a day to legalize their tours,” he told Tuoi Tre.
Original Vietnamese story can be found here on Tuoi Tre. Thanh Nien’s Nguyen Tu contributed to this article.