Vietnam braces for tsunami's impact at home

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Vietnamese businesses are preparing for a downturn in trade as Japan scrambles to address the impact of the recent tsunami.

The two countries established relations in 1973. In addition to being a major trade partner and the number one donor, Japan has proven a source of large numbers of well-heeled tourists.

Japanese arrivals hit 92,000 in the first two months of this year, alone. Last year, Vietnam welcomed 450,000 visitors from the island nation.

Representatives from JTB-TNT, a Vietnamese-Japanese joint tourism venture, have reported that their pickup busses are returning from airports mostly empty.

"We can't tell, at this point, how many of our clients have called off their trips, but the number must be huge," a representative said.

JTB-TNT also reported that many of its clients, arriving in Vietnam before the quake, shortened their trip and returned home early.

"Ten groups of Japanese tourists were supposed to arrive last weekend, but eight canceled their tours," said Nguyen Thanh Son, a manager at Apex, a travel agency in Ho Chi Minh City. "In the other two groups, only two out of 12 tourists made it."

Following a few days of connection problems, Son said he was finally able to reach his partners in Japan. No one seemed certain what would become of their business.

"Now we can only cross our fingers and wait," said Son, who was expecting 500 Japanese tourists in April and May.

Travel firms dealing in outbound trips to Japan said that the recent tragedy has dealt a serious blow to their business.

March and April, the sakura season, is considered the best time to visit Japan. Now many Vietnamese clients say they plan to cancel trips through the month of April.

The devastation in Japan has also cast a pall of uncertainty over Vietnamese export businesses.

Vietnam's exports to Japan, the country's second largest market after the US, were valued at US$4.8 billion last year.

Exporters said that they expected to see a drop in business after the catastrophe struck. However, they remain uncertain as to how long the slump will continue.

"Trade will definitely be affected because most of Vietnam's exports to Japan travel through seaports which were hit hard by the tsunami," said Truong Dinh Hoe, secretary general of the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Processors.

Lam Ngoc Khuan, general director of the Phuong Nam Seafood Company in the southern province of Soc Trang, said Japan consumes roughly 30 percent of the firm's total exports.

"The disaster will hurt Vietnamese exports," he said. "Japanese companies will cut back on their imports because consumers will tighten their belts as a result of the recent catastrophe and the prolonged economic difficulties for the past several years."

Pham Xuan Hong, general director of Saigon 3 Garment Company, said his partners in Japan are anticipating changes this year in consumer attitudes.

"The demand for hi-end products will fall," Hong said. He guessed that his company would not face too many difficulties as it mainly focuses on mid-priced apparel.

Around the world, many countries are also expecting setbacks in trade with Japan"”at least in the short term.

On Monday, the Xinhua agency reported that bilateral trade between China and Japan is sure to be affected. The agency also reported that, in the long term, Japan's reconstruction will drive up its need for procurement and investment.

The following day, Malaysia's Business Times quoted International Trade and Industry Deputy Minister Datuk Jacob Dungau Sagan as saying that trade with Japan is expected to face a minor hiccup in the short-term.

But he added that Japan's economy is very resilient and "will come back strong."

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