A decade ago few people thought that tourism development in Laos and Cambodia would outpace Vietnam’s.
Many tourism officials in the two countries used to be trained in Vietnam.
Laos has no coastline and focuses mostly on culture and ecological tourism with two UNESCO heritage sites, Wat Phou Temple and Luang Prabang town.
Cambodia has a coastline that is just an eighth of Vietnam’s in length. It has attracted tourists mostly to two UNESCO heritage sites, Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear temples.
Vietnam tourism has more attractions, including a long coastline with beautiful beaches and eight UNESCO heritage sites.
However, the number of international tourists visiting Vietnam has been declining in contrast to its two neighbors. Last year Laos received 3.5 million visitors and Cambodia, 4.5 million.
The problem with Vietnamese tourism can only be attributed to poor management.
At a recent National Assembly session Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam mentioned six fears foreign tourists have in Vietnam -- like overpricing and rip-offs, unsafe traffic, beggars and petty thefts, bad food safety, dirty public restrooms and littering.
Foreign tourists in Laos and Cambodia face fewer or no fears of this sort.
Ironically, the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism has released a survey showing that more than 94 percent of 14,000 surveyed foreign visitors to the country ranked their experience as "good" to "very good."
If this were true, Vietnam would have ranked 1st worldwide as a tourism destination.
Laos, Cambodia vs. Vietnam
Most governmental agencies in Laos and Cambodia are not large or have imposing offices to show off. Thus, they have no need to impose large taxes on tourism services.
Many roads in Laos and Cambodia are smaller but do not have myriad toll booths unlike in Vietnam.
Traffic is safer there and even toilets in Laos and Cambodia are much cleaner than in Vietnam, according to Nguyen Van My, chairman of Lua Viet Tours.
Laos and Cambodia each have hundreds of tour guides who can speak Vietnamese. In contrast, Vietnam has just a few of tour guides who can speak Khmer or Thai.
Both Laos and Cambodia issue visas on arrival, while Vietnam is enmeshed in red tape.
Laos and Cambodia are poorer than Vietnam in terms of economy size and tourism potential.
Their tourism industries used to lag behind Vietnam’s but have been developing rapidly and outpacing Vietnam.
It reminds me of the story of the tortoise and the hare.
It is human beings who create and operate tourism mechanisms. It is human beings who create laws and culture and, thus, are the cause of all problems.
* The writer, Nguyen Van My, is chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City-based Lua Viet Tours. The opinions expressed are his own.