Saying sorry time and again is a sorry state of affairs

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A tourist buys fried banana cakes at a pushcart in the central ancient town of Hoi An. The town is said to be attractive to foreign tourists, partly thanks to its people's kind and honest treatment towards them.

On April 25, Nguyen Van Tuan, head of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, apologized to an Australian tourist after she and her two children were cheated by a cyclo driver in Hanoi.

Two days earlier, Ilona Schultz and her children were charged VND1.3 million (US$61.58) for a five-kilometer ride, which was more than ten times the normal price.

During the meeting, Tuan pledged that the city authorities will take measures to protect tourists. He also said that the cyclo driver was a "rotten apple."

However, on April 24, it was reported that three French tourists were driven by a taxi from Hanoi's Noi Bai International Airport to a hotel different from the one they booked.

The next day, when they wanted to move out after realizing that they had checked into the wrong hotel, they were threatened by the hotel's staff members.

The tourists managed to inform the local police who summoned the hotel staff, and the hotel paid them VND10 million ($473.73) in compensation.

Hanoi police have said they are investigating a case where an Australian couple were charged VND980,000

($46.42) for a taxi ride in Hanoi on April 28 that cost VND98,000.

It was probably because the two latest cases came to light during the national five-day holiday that Tuan was not able to apologize in person to the victims as he did earlier.

There is no need to suspect his sincerity and dedication, but we have to keep in mind, it is right to say sorry when you are wrong, but wrong to keep apologizing for the same thing.

Repeated apologies just show that you are incapable of correcting your mistake and the apologies start losing their value.

In an interview with Tuoi Tre three years ago, Tuan talked about establishing a tourism police force as countries with well developed tourism sectors, like Egypt, France, Spain and Thailand, have done.

However, he also expressed his concern that even such a force would not be able to solve the problem fully. 

The most important thing, he said then, is changing people's awareness, meaning that the problem will not be solved until people realize that they must treat tourists with kindness and righteousness for lasting profit, not cheat them for immediate gains.

But, creating such change depends on authorities and policymakers. They have to stipulate stiff punishments for violators, and enforce regulations effectively.

In fact, the practice of doing things for immediate gains did not start when Vietnam emerged as a new tourism destination a few decades ago. It began much earlier, with news reports telling of local people being cheated by bus companies, drivers and conductors when traveling from big cities to their hometowns and vice versa during holidays.

Travelers were forced to get on overcrowded vehicles a 45-seat bus carried more than 70 passengers. And then, on the way, they were forced into restaurants that overcharged them for bad meals, and any refusal to pay was met with threats of violence and worse.  

Such things must have started then and nurtured by the fact that bus drivers and restaurant owners were never punished strictly even after their wrongdoings were exposed.

So these things continue to this day in various shapes and forms, right down to an old woman who sells coconuts on the street asking for more money from a tourist than she would from a local.

Tuan is right, people's awareness and attitudes need to change, but that change has to start at the top, with those who have the power.

They need to take the first, real steps towards real change.

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