Tourists visit Vietnam's central ancient town of Hoi An, a UNESCO world heritage site in June. Photo: Reuters
The tourism high season kicked off last month, but few foreign visitors have come to Vietnam so far.
The economic crisis in some main markets like the US and Europe is a cause, but persistent problems like high prices and poor tourism promotion are also to blame, industry insiders said.
"The situation has never been difficult as now," Nguyen Cong Hoan, deputy general director of travel agent Hanoi Redtour, lamented.
"The global economic slowdown has forced people to reduce spending, including on travel.
"The number of our customers coming from Europe, the US and Australia has plummeted by 30 percent this year."
The current economic downturn has hurt Vietnam's tourism industry more seriously than the previous one in 2008-09, he said.
"The spending on tourism was higher then. After the economic slowdowns, their purse strings are obviously tighter."
Nguyen Minh Man, head of communications at Vietravel, said the number of customers has fallen sharply since the beginning of this year.
"There have been few foreign customers booking tours."
To attract customers, Vietravel has launched a promotional campaign worth VND3 billion (US$142,900) from October 1 to November 30.
According to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, the number of international arrivals dropped 14 percent month-on-month in September, a fifth straight month of fall.
The number of visitors from France fell by half, while there were 22 percent fewer South Koreans and 15 percent fewer Americans.
Hoan said though hotel tariffs in Vietnam are now down compared to a few years ago, they are still high compared to other Southeast Asian countries. For example, customers have to pay $100-200 for a luxury room in Hanoi, while a similar room in Bangkok costs only $80-90.
Food, spa services and transport also cost 20-30 percent more than those in Thailand and Indonesia, he said.
Besides, the hotels and restaurants, transport, tourist guides, and entertainment options are not good enough to attract tourists, he said.
Ha Long Bay, recognized as a world heritage site, is very beautiful, but cannot attract visitors if they are worried about boats sinking, Hoan pointed out.
Several heritage sites in the central Quang Binh Province are very attractive, but the place does not have a single quality hotel apart from the Sun Spa Resort, he added.
The Dong Van stone plateau in Ha Giang Province is a global geo-park, but there is not much infrastructure there either, Hoan said.
"Our infrastructure and services are not good, which has dissuaded foreign tourists from returning to Vietnam or recommending the country to others.
"Vietnam is one of those countries that see few foreign visitors returning."
Another drawback, he said, is the lack of cooperation between operators. He cited the examples of Singapore and Thailand where inbound tours are priced low because of solid intra-sector cooperation and the operators earn more from other services that visitors use.
But in Vietnam tour prices are high because transport operators, hotels and restaurants, and travel agents do not work together, he added.
Besides the poor quality of services, Man of Vietravel also blamed the situation on the monotonous tourism products and poor marketing.
The director of a travel agency said until a few years ago her firm used to take four or five groups of foreign tourists to traditional craft villages like Bat Trang ceramic village and Van Phuc silk village every month.
But now it seldom does, she said.
"Most customers want to participate in making handicraft products. They want to know about the production process, the villages' customs and culture. But the villages do not provide them that information.
"At the villages, tourists can only visit showrooms. So their tours are often boring, and they do not want to return."
Hoan said the biggest problem is that Vietnam does not have effective promotion. It is only tourists who have visited other Asian countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia that come to Vietnam.
Vietnam is not a preference for those booking an overseas tour for the first time, he said.
"Our tourism promotion campaigns are poorer than those of other regional countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. This is mainly because of our lack of experience.
"All provinces have tourism promotion steering committees, but they do not know what foreign visitors really need. All of them organize street festivals and trade fairs to promote tourism. But visitors do not need them."
Localities that can offer marine tourism should strengthen promotion of that aspect, while those that have caves should promote their caves, and so on, he said.
Not surprisingly, the slowdown in the tourism industry has hit the hotel and aviation industries.
Vo Huy Cuong, head of the Civil Aviation Administration's Air Transport Department, said the aviation sector is facing difficulties due to falling demand from both local and foreign travelers as a result of the economic slowdown.
The aviation market shrunk by 1 percent in the first eight months of this year, against average growth of 14-20 percent until a few years ago, according to the department.
A Hoi An official said the town is an attractive tourism destination, but with the number of visitors falling, hotels are struggling to survive. Many owners want to sell out to cut losses.
According to property consulting firm CBRE, the occupancy rate for Hanoi's 8,533 rooms was only 53 percent in the first nine months.
"Four- and five-star hotels are aggressively competing against one another to gain market share through reducing their rates," it said.
Man of Vietravel warned that the number of visitors from Europe, the US and Australia would decrease further next year. Vietnam, however, may see more visitors from Japan, Thailand and Myanmar, he said.
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