Vietnam travel companies struggle to revive domestic market

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Foreign tourists in the northern province of Lao Cai

Travel companies are offering dubious promotions to boost sales that have been poor even in summer, the peak tourism season.

More than 20 travel companies in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are offering discounts of up to nearly 50 percent on domestic tours.

Though many promise the discounts will not affect quality, Thanh Nien discovered that clients are taken to fewer destinations on tours.

Besides, the prices now exclude components that used to be included -- like meals and entrance tickets.

Hanoitourist, for instance, is offering a four-day tour from the capital to the central resort town of Nha Trang for VND6.8 million (US$320.86) excluding lunches and dinners.

It also does not include cable car fares at Vinpearl Land and tickets to the mineral mud bath at Thap Ba hot spring center though the sites are included in the itinerary.

An alliance of 14 northern travel companies has also cut the price of a tour of heritage sites in the central region for four to five days.

But instead of the earlier packed schedule tourists now have two afternoons and one morning free, and also have to buy the first lunch themselves.

Many HCMC travel companies offering discounts on tours to the northern and central regions also use the same trick, claiming to "respect customers' personal demands to the utmost."

On a tour to the central city of Da Nang, for instance, tourists are taken to the foot of Ba Na Mountain by bus, but only those willing to pay for the cable car can visit the top.

A manager of inbound tours at a HCMC travel company said on condition of anonymity that claiming to give clients more free time as a way to show respect for their needs is merely "an excuse."

Another strategy used by the travel companies is take clients to destinations late at night and bring them back early in the morning.

A HCMC company that operates a tour to Phu Quoc for "three days and two nights" takes clients from HCMC at around 2:45 p.m. so that they reach the island late in the afternoon.

The group departs Phu Quoc at 8 a.m. on the last day, meaning the tour is effectively only one day and two nights on the island.

Cao Tri Dung, director of Vitours Company in Da Nang, said he is surprised at the 40 percent discount that Hanoi companies are offering for tours to the central region.

The maximum his company can offer is 20-30 percent though Vitours can buy cheap tickets from Vietnam Airlines and has transportation and guides available on site since the company is based in the city.

The tour manager who asked to remain anonymous said once some companies start to use ruses to decrease prices, others follow suit.

The dubious discounts have thus become common, he admitted.

Last month the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism launched a tourism stimulus package and asked travel companies, hotels, restaurants, tourist areas, and shops that signed up to offer 10-40 percent discounts during off-peak times.

In return they are allowed to advertise themselves on the program's website and some newspapers.

But at the launch many companies complained that though it is called a stimulus package the program offers no financial support.

The country received 558,000 international tourists in May, down 9 percent from April. The numbers had also dropped in March and April, according to Vietnam's General Statistics Office

It said 2.9 million foreign tourists came in the first five months, a year-on-year fall of 1.4 percent.

Outbound rise

Thoi bao kinh te (Saigon Times) newspaper recently quoted local travel companies as saying that the number of Vietnamese traveling abroad increased in the first half.

Nguyen The Khai, director of Hoang My Travel Company, said his company sold 20 percent more outbound tours compared to the same period last year.

Every month the company took around 10 groups to "far and expensive destinations," and 20 others to nearby places, he said.

"While inbound tours saw no growth, outbound tours are doing well. It seems the economic difficulty has no effect on the outbound market."

Nguyen Viet Hung, director general of Fiditour Company, concurred saying his company sells many tours to places like Dubai and Europe and many other companies operate overseas tours for hundreds of clients.

Another major operator, Saigontourist, sold overseas tours to some 22,000 people in the first six months, a year-on-year increase of 10 percent, Doan Thi Thanh Tra, its marketing manager, said.

Around 30 percent of outbound tours were to faraway destinations, she said.

Prices mostly did not increase in the first half, while some -- like tours to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and China -- even decreased by VND3-10 million ($141-471).

Some large travel firms in HCMC said companies in fields like pharmaceuticals, insurance, and oil and gas pay billions of dong for overseas tours for their business partners and remain the biggest customers.

But 80-90 percent of customers of Fiditour pay for themselves, especially those traveling to the US, Europe, and Canada, Khai said.

Last year some 3.5 million Vietnamese traveled abroad and spent more than $3.5 billion, according to figures from the Vietnam Tourism Association.

It said every year 1.1 million people visit China and around one million go to Cambodia.

Other popular foreign destinations are Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea.

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