Vietnam and Thailand are almost similar in terms of climate and geographical characteristics, but the former has a longer coast and is said to boast strikingly beautiful landscapes.
However, statistics recently released by both countries show Vietnam is nowhere near as successful as its neighbor in attracting foreign tourists.
According to Vietnam's General Statistics Office, the country received 558,000 international tourists in May, down 9 percent from April. The numbers also dropped in March and April.
The office said 2.9 million international tourists visited Vietnam over the first five months of this year, a year-on-year decrease of 1.4 percent.
On the other hand, the Tourism Authority of Thailand last week announced that international tourists saw a year-on-year rise of 19 percent over the first four months. It noted that the strongest increases were recorded in East Asian and Southeast Asian markets.
Thailand aims to welcome 24.14 million international tourists this year for tourism revenues of over US$37 billion, said Juthaporn Rerngronasa, deputy chief of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Foreign tourists visit Cai Rang floating market in the Mekong Delta City of Can Tho. Photo courtesy of NLD.
According to Rerngronasa, her country last year set a record for the number of international tourists it welcomed: 22 million.
Why such a big difference?
Some people who have experience in working in Vietnam's tourism industry told me that the difference starts from the way the two countries make investments, both in the extent of funding and in the methods used.
Promotion of the national image provides an obvious example.
In 1996, Thai authorities founded an award called "Friends of Thailand" to honor individuals and organizations for their long-term support to the country's tourism industry, mainly by promoting Thailand's image internationally.
This move shows how Thai people appreciate their international friends who have contributed to generating billions of dollars for the tourism industry.
Every two years, they invite such friends to their country and honor them in a ceremony that is "luxurious," says Cong Khanh, director of Caravan Angkor Tours, one of the awardees this year.
All the awardees are given copper statues of Kinnari a mythical creature depicted as half-bird and half-woman. Kinnari is considered as a symbol of grace and accomplishment by the people of Thailand.
Over the past 16 years, Thailand has honored nearly 550 friends from over 80 countries around the world.
Meanwhile, what does Vietnam have to show for itself?
It has a seen long controversy over the importance of appointing a national tourism ambassador after the scandal-attracting actress and businesswoman Ly Nha Ky was appointed as the first one in 2011.
Ky ended her term in 2012, with opinions mixed about what she has done for the country's tourism. After she withdrew her nomination for the position for the next term early this year, more celebrities have nominated themselves. The applicants have since made headline-grabbing comments, even including criticism of their competitors.
With so many applicants, the ministry has decided that Vietnam will not have a tourism ambassador this year, but will do so next year. It has also decided that the ambassador's term of office will be extended for two years.
It seems that stories about Vietnam's tourism ambassador have spread to other countries, because at a recent tourism fair in Bangkok, one industry insider asked me jokingly: "What is the latest scandal about the Vietnamese tourism ambassador?"
His question reminded me of the comment made by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nguyen Thanh Son: "It is a useless and meaningless game to choose a tourism ambassador!"
Son is not wrong. Looking at how Thailand is doing with their "Friends of Thailand" campaign and how they are promoting tourism generally, one can easily understand why they are so successful and we have lagged far behind.
Obviously, we need real "Friends of Vietnam," not scandal-mongering ambassadors of dubious capabilities.