Struggling businesses urge Vietnam to expand visa waiver to lure back tourists

By An Dien, Thanh Nien News

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A foreign tourist leaves a travel agency in the backpackers' area in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuan Anh A foreign tourist leaves a travel agency in the backpackers' area in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuan Anh

A business group has urged Vietnam to relax its visa procedures following a dip in tourism arrivals that followed last month's anti-China riots, but tourism operators and industry watchers remain skeptical that this unexpected crisis will sway the authorities.

China’s deployment of a giant US$-1billion oil rig in Vietnamese waters on May 2 triggered peaceful anti-China protests that erupted into violence in central and southern Vietnam two weeks later. 
Extremists torched, looted and vandalized foreign-owned factories. Taiwanese businesses, mistaken for being Chinese, suffered the most. 
Despite “significant growth” in visitor arrivals in the first four months of this year, the riots reversed the trend, according to the findings of a midterm report presented last week in Hanoi by the Vietnam Business Forum (VBF)--a consortium of international and local business associations and chambers of commerce.
Hotels have seen many tour operators cancel trips through the end of June and many multinationals have continued to restrict travel to Vietnam, the report said.
“Whilst Russian visitor arrivals have been largely unaffected, the main impact has been on visitors from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia,” it said.
The VBF’s Tourism Working Group also conducted a small-scale survey showing that just 18 of Vietnam's 640 hotels lost over $1.8 million--or 14,945 room night cancellations--through July.
Insiders endorsed the findings of the survey as reflective of the big picture.
“The impact described is related to the recent events in the East Sea which have affected mainly the Asian market,” George Adam, general manager of the Ho Chi Minh City-based tourism company Exotissimo Vietnam, told Thanh Nien News.
“The results are quite big in the short-term for hoteliers and the regional tourism industry,” Adam said.
To lure back frightened tourists, the VBF proposed that “visa-exemptions [be] expanded to include countries that can potentially account for significant tourism revenue, such as EU member states, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan”.
Will Vietnam bite?
Due to Vietnam's failure to act on past rhetoric about simplifying visa procedures (particularly those related to the issuance of visas-on-arrival) few believe that the recommendation will come to much.
“I am not sure the current decline per se will convince the authorities as it was due to an unprecedented single event, prior to which arrivals were continuing to increase,” said Kenneth Atkinson, chairman of the VBF’s Tourism Working Group.
“This matter is clearly very complex as it involves three different ministries whose interests are not always aligned,” he said.
In April of last year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wanted to scrap the visa waiver for single-entry visits of up to 15 days for Danish, Finnish, Japanese, Norwegian, Russian, South Korean, and Swedish nationals.
It criticized the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism for failing to take advantage of the policy to promote tourism, saying that the policy costs state coffers $50 million annually.
The dispute was only settled when two deputy prime ministers stepped in, and asked the foreign affairs and tourism ministries to continue offering visa waivers for tourists from those seven countries.
Also, given the growing backlash against illegal foreign workers, lawmakers have repeatedly urged the government to tighten controls on foreigners overstaying their 15-day visa to take local jobs and even commit crimes.
While this move is apparently aimed at unskilled Chinese workers and African nationals, collateral damage is inevitable, experts say.
But still, changes are afoot.
Since March 10, foreigners have been able to visit Phu Quoc Island in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang for up to 30 days without a visa. The visa waiver also applies to foreigners who transit at any airport or seaport in Vietnam on their way to Phu Quoc.
Also in March, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched an online visa application website, which is expected to reduce the processing time to two working days. http://visa.mofa.gov.vn is available in Vietnamese, English, French, and German.
Tourists can now submit visa applications online and track their status, the government website reported.
In the wake of the anti-China riots, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung called for the easing of visa requirements for foreign workers as part of a broad range of measures designed to restore the trust of foreign investors.
Nguyen Van Tuan, general director of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) said the decline in Chinese tourist arrivals would bring about another opportunity for Vietnam to shift its focus to traditional markets, such as Russia, Japan, South Korean, Europe, Australia and ASEAN countries.
“The VNAT now seems more supportive of our recommendations," Atkinson said of the latest proposal to expand the visa waiver. "The Prime Minister [also] seemed to be paying close attention to our comments, so I am hopeful we may make some progress on the issue.” 
“But they also need support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and [the] Immigration [department],” he said.
For some, it may seem difficult to understand why Vietnamese authorities have not bought into the idea that visa waivers are likely to boost tourism, and that scrapping them could cause problems, especially considering the evidence available in neighboring countries in the region.
For others, the reason is pretty clear.
"I think there are too many vested interests, too many [people] making too much money for them to turn off this lucrative revenue stream," a Vietnamese tourism expert said, declining to be named due to the “sensitivity” of the issue.
"Money talks. But it is killing the industry."
‘Big difference’
The VBF report also called for an “efficient” visa-on-arrival system to be established in Vietnam. This is in line with the annual VBF report released last year that said there had been "no progress" on creating a transparent, open, and effective visa-on-arrival system.
At the end of the day, tourism actors haven't asked for a complete visa waiver for countries which aren't currently on the visa-exemption list, experts say.
“What would make a big difference is a change to a real visa-on-arrival system at international airports and land borders (without need for pre-authorization paperwork),” said Adam of Exotissimo.
“Recent events, like the coup in Thailand, highlight the missed opportunities with the current system; many travelers had to change their plans at the last minute, but they redirected to countries in the region with no paperwork/visa needs like Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore,” he said.
“An open door is more welcoming and much easier to walk through than a half-open door.”
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