Taking a tourism leaf out of Japan's book

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Many Japanese tourists I have met told me that they felt something familiar when they visited Vietnam. They said life in Vietnam reminded them of Japan during the 1960s-1970s. They said Vietnamese people were friendly and nice, Vietnamese food was delicious, and Vietnamese handicrafts were beautiful and varied.

But, they also said they would not return to Vietnam if it were not for work.

What upset the Japanese most about their stay in Vietnam was the transportation, being cheated and a lack of proper restroom facilities.

Given the current messy traffic situation in big Vietnamese cities, the choice of transport for most Japanese tourists is the taxi. However, as the media has repeatedly reported, tourists are often ripped off by taxi drivers.

Japanese tourists also complained to me that lots of tourism sites in Vietnam still lacked restrooms or if they were available, they were too dirty. One of them even mentioned that many female restrooms do not have toilet paper. This happens even at a big shopping mall in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, where women have to receive the paper right at the restroom's entrance, she said.

The Japanese tourists told me, setting aside the restroom problem which has been mentioned by many people and will be surely tackled very soon, Vietnam can deal with the taxi problem and rip-offs at tourism sites the same way they do it in Japan.

At many tourism sites in Japan, tourists can buy bus and train tickets for a route including their desired destinations in packages. That means tourists only pay the fares once at listed prices and then can go to anywhere they want on their route by bus or train with the provided ticket.

I think it is totally possible to apply this system for taxis in Vietnam and it can help prevent mistreatment of tourists by taxi drivers.

Another thing is that at tourism sites in Japan, people can easily find people who wear uniforms with a badge reading "voluntary tour guides."

Most of them are men who have retired or middle-aged women who are not too busy with housework. Even though few of them can speak English, they are always willing and enthusiastic about helping visitors, providing information about the sites' history and geography, and answer tourists' questions about local prices and lifestyles.

I have met many of these voluntary guides. They always made me feel secure, comfortable and want to come back again.

This initiative is possible in Vietnam, too. Local authorities can join hands with travel companies to call for help from locals at tourism sites. Besides the elderly, students should join as well, because it will give them opportunities to practice their language skills.

However, authorities should be careful because some people can make use of this voluntary system to lead tourists to familiar shops and earn commissions.

No advertisement and promotion is better and more long-lasting than word of mouth. Once we can build a good image about Vietnamese tourism and gain the trust of tourists, they will help us spread the word and together with the increasingly strong influence of information technology-based advances, this promotion's effect will be much greater.

We will then earn money in a proper and civilized way, and visitors will not have to encounter nasty, cheap behavior as they do now.

By Phan Thi My Loan (Tuoi Tre)
The writer holds a doctorate in Japanese language and culture, and has lived in Japan for seven years.

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