Be different. Do not offer more of the same. This is what experts are telling Mekong Delta provinces.
The delta has what it takes to become a great tourist destination but unoriginal activities and poor services do not help tap this potential, they say.
Nguyen Thanh Vuong, deputy director of the Market Department under the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, said he found too many overlapping tourism activities on a recent visit to the region.
Everywhere he went he could find similar floating markets, orchards, waterway trips and folk music performances. Vuong said tourists visited traditional cake makers and crocodile farms in Ben Tre Province, but then they went to Can Tho City and they would do the same thing again.
This is because tourism operators are not creative enough, Vuong said. Although there are similar natural conditions all over the delta region, this does not mean the provinces should offer exactly the same things to tourists, he told a recent conference in Kien Giang Province.
But tourism companies do not think they are the ones to blame.
The problem is each locality does not even know its own strengths and specialties that they can promote to tourists, said Le Phong Tran, deputy head of the international market department at Ho Chi Minh City-based Fiditour.
"Many times tourism companies have suggested new potential activities, but the provinces have not supported them," Tran said.
Huynh Hong Tham, marketing manager at the Saigon-My Tho Toserco Company, said it was also hard to find support from local residents for developing new tourism products.
Tham said her company wanted to partner with farmers to organize agriculture tours, but its offers were all turned down. Most of the farmers said they were content with what they had and they did not need another job, she said.
Mekong Delta locals pay little attention to promoting their cultural values, Tham said. She said she found residents in other regions more active in promoting their hometowns.
"In the Duong Lam ancient village in Hanoi, everyone can talk passionately about their place," she said. "Many people in the Mekong Delta can't do that."
The delta comprises 12 provinces and one city. It covers an area of more than 40,620 square kilometers and accounts for 20.5 percent of the nation's population of nearly 90 million.
While everyone agreed that the region has great potential for tourism thanks to favorable weather as well as its natural and cultural diversity, what it has done so far is not very impressive, experts say.
The delta attracts less than ten million tourists a year and generates a mere 2.75 percent of the country's tourism revenues.
Vuong of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, in an essay published earlier this month in the Nhan Dan newspaper, said the Mekong Delta has five national forests, four natural reserves, hundreds of famous historical and cultural sites, dozens of folk festivals, and 211 craft villages.
But due to the lack of good services and interesting activities, each Vietnamese tourist only spends an average of 2.8 days in the Mekong Delta. Foreign tourists stay for less time at 1.8 days, Vuong said.
He said although the region has around 900 hotels, large and small, only 19 of them are ranked three stars or higher. Besides, restaurants still need to improve their quality while better sports and entertainment facilities have to be provided for tourists.
Over the past ten years the government has financed the Mekong Delta with VND715 billion (US$36.7 million) to develop infrastructure for tourism, not to mention a fund of $10 million from the Asia Development Bank and $21.88 million in foreign investment inflows.
Still, most of the new hotels and resorts have failed to live up to expectations and there was nothing special about them, Vuong said. "Their architecture does not blend with the environment and their services are below par."
Phan Dinh Hue, director of Viet Circle Travel and Service Company, said what tourists need now is good riverside resorts where they can stay for five days to a week.
The opportunity offered by the Mekong River has to be seized, he said, noting that short visits to orchards do not give tourists good opportunities to spend more.
Hue said cruise trips on the river from one province to another can be a good idea because the demand for this service is high, especially from European tourists.
Do Cam Tho, an expert of the Institute for Tourism Development Research in Hanoi, said all localities can continue to base their tourism products on the river and fruit orchards, but they need to have a sharper focus.
Each province and city should have something different to offer than the others, and each of them needs to stand out, she said.