Tourism fairs mere junkets for uncaring authority

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A poster of China's Leshan Giant Buddha is "mistakenly" placed a booth to promote Vietnam's tourism at a tourism event in Berlin

A large photo of China's Leshan Giant Buddha, which is carved out of a cliff face in Sichuan Province, was exhibited at Vietnam's booth at an international tourism fair in Berlin earlier this month.

The Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) called it a "mistake," and tour companies shrugged it off saying it was just another of the "embarrassing" gaffes the agency makes at such events.

But they also lamented about the things it fails to do: send out clear and impressive messages about its tourism and build a national tourism brand.

Pham Ha, director of Hanoi-based Luxury Travel Company, said the photos Vietnam displays at tourism fairs never follow a theme and are usually of low resolution, while leaflets masquerade as "tourism products" with vague and mundane information.

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"Vietnam's booth is always full of old and ugly items just like a small vendor's shop," Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper quoted Ha as saying.

He said the administration needs to specifically define "Vietnam Timeless Charm," the country's tourism slogan, and identify the strong points of the country's attractions to know what to promote.

Vietnam has around 10 new luxury hotels opening every year but the administration does not mention that to foreign partners, and, though the tourism ministry has ordered strong promotion of sea-related tourism, the administration never does that at international events, he said.

While the administration itself is always poorly prepared, it does not give the tourism companies coming along at their own cost a chance either by never informing them in advance about foreign operators attending an exhibition or their promotional schemes, he added.

The director of a travel company in Ho Chi Minh City, who wished to remain unnamed, told Tuoi Tre that Vietnam has for many years now failed to be active at international events.

"Other countries make use of every opportunity to introduce themselves, [and] they even skip lunch breaks. They compete with each other to ask partners out for dinners, and they have interesting things to pull people to their booths.

"I just feel ashamed thinking about us."

Ton That Hoa, general director of the Ho Chi Minh City Tourism Association, told Vietweek that Vietnam lags behind even Cambodia in tourism promotion, since Siem Riep and Angkor are now more popular than any destination in Vietnam.

Cambodia did not do it on its own but has been hiring tourism companies from Italy, France, and Switzerland.

"It surely has to share profits with those companies, but its tourism and images have been promoted better. Now thousands of visitors are coming to Siem Riep and Angkor all year through," Hoa said.

Vietnam spends VND200-600 million (US$9,560-28,670) for each of 12 to 15 international tourism fairs a year in the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Japan, China, and Singapore, but the spending has not resulted in much benefit, insiders admitted.

Bureaucratic

Vu The Binh, formerly head of the Administration's Travel Department for 12 years, told Tuoi Tre that Vietnam's participation at international tourism events cannot be more unplanned.

"The administration would send some people this year, and others next year.

"Sometimes only three or four people go, while other times tens of people would be there. Such efforts cannot bring a professional outcome.

"No one cares about promoting the country's tourism and everyone just takes it as an opportunity to travel abroad."

Hoa expressed the same concern about Vietnam's tourism delegations, saying they mostly comprise administrative officials who have the power to snap up foreign trips instead of professionals.

Qualified people must be put in charge of tourism promotion, he told Vietweek.

"We need studies to understand the interest of targeted customers at fairs. At the Berlin fair, for instance, prospective customers are Westerners and so tours with spiritual overtones will not work; but they might work in the Middle East.

"And we must find a partner in the host country who will help us sell tours and promote us at the fair."

Businesses attending the fairs said the administration hardly seems to make a review after an international event or survey prospective customers to know what Vietnam has gained from the event.

The country received around 4.17 million foreign tourists last year, a 14.2 percent increase from the previous year, and earnings grew by nearly a fourth to VND160 trillion ($7.68 billion).

VNAT said at a conference in January that it expects 7.2 million international visitors as opposed to tourists are this year.

But Pham Trung Luong, deputy head of the Administration's Research Center, said there have been no studies to find out if the administration's efforts helped attract those numbers.

"If the administration stops promoting, I believe we will still have many foreign visitors coming."

He said there needs to be a study every couple of years of how the administration's promotional campaigns informed people about Vietnamese tourism, and into whether people are coming to Vietnam because of these campaigns or other reasons.

"Then we will know if taxpayers' money is used efficiently," he said, adding that not a single member from his department is sent to international tourism events to gather materials for such studies.

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