A recent article in Tuoi Tre, translated and reprinted in Vietweek and Thanh Nien News as "Why We Fail and Why They Succeed
," took a very reductive look at the reasons why Thailand is a hugely popular tourist destination and why Vietnam isn't.
According to the article, Thailand is successful because it gives awards to tourism industry partners, and Vietnam is unsuccessful because it employs unsuitable tourism ambassadors.
Sadly it isn't that simple, and the writer makes the all too common mistake of assuming that awards, tourism ambassadors and tourism promotions are relevant. They aren't.
Dutch tourists visit a coffee shop in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong. Photo by Gia Binh.
Tourists visiting either country are not aware of the "Friends of Thailand" awards or the existence of Ly Nha Ky, and even if they were, it is doubtful that either would have any influence on their travel choices.
Thailand's tourism industry continues to amaze: 22 million visitors in 2012, over 24 million expected this year, a return rate of around 50 percent, Bangkok the most visited tourism destination in the world... and all this after the destructive political protests of 2010 and the floods of 2011.
Compare and contrast with Vietnam, with a mere 6 million visitors in 2012, numbers down in 2013, a return rate of around 5 percent (1
), and widespread negative publicity about scams and rip-offs. So why the huge difference in numbers?
In Vietnam's defense, one might cite the fact that Thailand has had a tourism industry since the 1960s, whereas Vietnam didn't start opening up to foreign visitors until the mid-1990s. But that would be overly simplistic and would ignore the lack of development in Vietnam's tourism industry in the last 20 years, during which time visitor numbers have increased, but service levels, infrastructure, promotion and awareness have developed at a snail's pace.
Many expatriates have written to Vietweek concurring that despite the problems they face in Vietnam, it is simply not acceptable that people direct their anger and slurs at all Vietnamese. It would also give the country an excuse to sit back and wait for another 30 years for things to improve, an excuse many in the industry would no doubt welcome.
This forum, "Your two cents", opens the floor for you, the expats, to hold forth on the changes you see in Vietnam: what disappoints, what pleases and what you would like to see happen. Email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. We reserve the right to edit your submissions for reasons of space and clarity.
Having lived in Vietnam from 2003 to late 2012, when I moved to Thailand, I have experienced tourism in both countries and the reason for such disparity has become very clear culture.
You can market a tourism destination all you like, but if people go there and have a negative experience, they simply won't go back. Thailand's tourism culture is all about offering a warm welcome and providing an enjoyable experience, and this begins at Bangkok airport, where most tourists don't need any kind of visa, where there are organized taxi queues, and where there is a fast, cheap and efficient network of trains and buses to get tourists into the city.
Compare this with the visa situation in Vietnam, where tourists have to apply in advance for an overpriced ($45!) tourist visa, where finding an honest airport taxi is like searching for a needle in a haystack, and where airport rail links are but a pipe dream. So many visitors to Vietnam have their initial impression formed by their negative airport experience, and never recover.
The Thais have realized the long-term benefits of providing a pleasant visitor experience, rather than milking tourists for all they have and then sending them on their way, never to return. Sure there are scams, but they're the exception rather than the rule. The emphasis is on politeness, courtesy, and providing tourists with what they want, whether it is beach bars, nightlife, affordable and diverse shopping, or, most importantly, peace, quiet and relaxation. Thailand is, in short, a welcoming, comfortable and stress-free place to travel.
Vietnam should be able to compete. Whereas Thailand lacks a globally-famous marquee attraction, Vietnam has Ha Long Bay. Its cities have the old-school Asian bustle and street life that over-developed Bangkok has lost. It has spectacular mountain scenery and over 3,000km of coastline. It has stunning examples of colonial architecture (though this is gradually being destroyed, sadly). It has outgoing, friendly people who are still curious about meeting foreign visitors. And it has an edgy, raw Southeast Asian vibe that much of Thailand lacks. In theory, it should be competing with Thailand, but is struggling to even compete with Cambodia.
Why? Because tourists are not made to feel welcome and are treated as a one-off opportunity to make money.
Any country that charges tourists $45 for a visa and makes them apply for it in advance is not really serious about tourism. Any country that allows tourists to be scammed and hassled to the degree that happens in Vietnam, even at its airports, is not really serious about tourism. Any country that allows the building of large beachfront resorts without accompanying developments such as convenience stores, beach bars or restaurants (see Da Nang) is not really serious about tourism. And any country which does zero market research with tourism companies and resident expats to find out what visitors really want is most definitely not serious about tourism.
All the awards schemes, tourism ambassadors and tradeshow stands in the world cannot change this. When you make it difficult for people to get into your country and then provide an unsatisfactory experience for them when they arrive, your tourism industry will never be successful. But make them welcome, give them what they want, and go out of your way to make sure they have a great time, and they will do your promotion and marketing for you.
Thailand understands this. Even Cambodia understands this. Sadly, Vietnam still doesn't, and its potential, and the knowledge and creativity of the many expats and locals working in its tourism industry, are going to waste.
* The writer is a Briton who used to live and work in Vietnam for 10 years and now lives in Thailand. The opinions expressed are his own.