Despite its rich culture and stunning natural beauty, Vietnam is lagging far behind its regional neighbors in terms of attracting outside tourists, according to a new economic report.
Local tourism officials and experts attribute Vietnam's poor tourism performance to a shortage of investors and service providers.
Vietnam ranked 80th among 139 countries and territories surveyed by the World Economic Forum (WEF), according to the WEF's annual Travel and Tourism Competitive Report last month.
By comparison, Singapore was ranked 10th, Malaysia 35th, and Thailand 41st.
"Vietnam has many tourist sites, but we have not yet fully tapped their potential," said Nguyen Cong Hoan, deputy director of travel firm Hanoi Red Tour. "Our tourism infrastructure is in a poor state."
Nowhere to stay
Hoan pointed out that the Dong Van Stone Plateau in Ha Giang Province, and the Thien Duong Cave in Quang Binh Province are both potentially attractive sites. However, there are only two hotels near the plateau, and none near Thien Duong.
What's more, he said, there are no four or five-star hotels near the Phong Nha Cave, part of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
"Many visitors wouldn't prefer to stay there overnight," he said. "And a day trip can wear people out."
Nguyen Minh Man, an official from Vietravel agency, said investment in Vietnam's tourism infrastructure has been limited, making many sites less attractive to visitors. He said that the country has not paid enough attention to promoting its tourist destinations. Existing promotions, he said, have suffered a lack of focus.
"We organize national tourism promotion programs every year," said Hoan of Hanoi Red Tour. "Each year, we focus on a locality, for example Nha Trang or Ha Long Bay. However, foreign tourists prefer to travel across the country, rather than remain in a single locality. So, the programs are not really effective."
Hoan added that the state's tourism promotion programs often diverge from the packages offered by travel agents.
The WEF report said Vietnam had been slow to adapt to changing demand patterns. The country had expected continued growth from Western European and North American markets which has dwindled steadily.
Money isn't everything
The report also said that Vietnam enjoyed an advantage in its low-priced tours it ranked 16th in price competitiveness. However, industry insiders say that the country cannot hope to attract visitors, with low prices alone.
Man said tourists focus on the quality of service and destinations before planning a trip. For this reason, he argued, low prices cannot play a decisive role in pulling in visitors.
"In fact, tour prices in Vietnam are not lower than in other countries," he said. "A four-day bus tour in Thailand or Beijing costs $90 a sum that would only cover a two night stay at a three-star hotel."
Service providers (from retail outlets to transportation firms and hoteliers) have not cooperated effectively in creating attractive packages so they cannot offer competitive prices, he said.
The shortcomings have prevented visitors from returning to Vietnam, Hoan said.
According to a recent survey by the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, 85 percent of visitors do not want to return to the country.
The WEF advised Vietnam to continue to develop its tourism and transportation infrastructure, in a more environmentally sustainable way.