Guiding principle

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Dearth of skilled Vietnamese tour guides prompts hiring of foreigners, but the practice is fraught with "˜serious consequences,' experts warn

A foreign tour guide speaking to a group of tourists on Le Duan Street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The lack of skilled and qualified Vietnamese tour guides is forcing many travel agencies to hire foreigners, although it is illegal to do so.

Last Monday, a group of more than 40 foreign tourists listened attentively as their tour guide provided them with information, answered questions and led them to several sites in Ho Chi Minh City.

They group visited the War Remnants Museum, Historical Museum, Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens and the Notre Dame Cathedral.

The guide was very active and efficient and even helped visitors buy souvenirs from vendors near the city's post office.

If he was not doing all this, he would have looked like a tourist himself.

Meanwhile, a young Vietnamese man quietly accompanied the group doing nothing.

In fact, he was the official tour guide, available to show his name tag whenever needed.

Vietnam's Tourism Law prohibits foreigners from working as tour guides.

However, the lack of skilled and competent Vietnamese tour guides has prompted many travel agents to illegally employ foreigners.

Some industry insiders and experts say this could prove to be a big problem, especially because foreign guides lacking sufficient knowledge of Vietnamese culture and history, could provide a distorted image of the country.

According to the 2005 Tourism Law, "international" tour guides (tour guides for international tourists visiting Vietnam) must be Vietnamese citizens with a bachelor's degree or higher.

Many travel agents have complained about the dearth of qualified guides for international tourists, especially during peak season.

"The Spanish speaking, Japanese and Korean speaking markets have much fewer qualified Vietnamese guides, so I do believe to deter them from encouraging package tourism to Vietnam would be a huge loss [to the industry]," said Cameron Walters, the manager of a tourism firm based in Ho Chi Minh City.

Walters claimed that most licensed tour operators tend to hire foreigners to cover groups of 6 to 8 paying guests. Most of the time, he said, they hire a local guide in order to comply with the law.

"This is about taking care of the guests, it gives them a "˜cushion' against culture shock and the comfort that they have "˜one of their own' alongside them," he wrote via email.

According to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, more than 6 million international visitors came to Vietnam in 2011, 20 percent more than the previous year. Nearly 2.5 million people visited Vietnam in the first quarter of this year, a 23 percent increase over the same period last year.

Meanwhile, there are only around 6,000 tour guides qualified to guide foreign visitors, half of whom only have temporary licenses because they don't meet all the requirements.

Given the paucity of trained tour guides who are fluent in foreign languages, both foreign and local travel agents say they must choose between refusing bookings or employing foreign guides.

Many Vietnamese tour guides said they know many foreign guides who are hired on a per job basis.

"They are abundant, especially Koreans. Many Chinese tour guides can be seen in Hanoi and northern provinces," a Ho Chi Minh City-based tour guide said.

But, some foreign guides argue, Vietnam's playing the same game.

"Vietnamese tour guides lead groups to Thailand everyday," said Walters.

Serious consequences

Nguyen Van My, the director of the HCMC-based Lua Viet Travel Agency, said hiring of foreign tour guides could have serious consequences.

He said that apart from foreign travel agencies hiring their own guides and having them accompanied by legal Vietnamese guides, there are foreigners operating illegally in Vietnam, without registering with Vietnamese authorities.

"It makes the local tourism industry chaotic," he said. "The government cannot collect relevant taxes."

Walters agreed. Given the large insurance premiums and licensing fees that legitimate tourism groups pay to do business in Vietnam, he said, the presence of rogue operators "probably does force a cost issue, pushing wholesale prices downwards, which could affect quality."

My said Korean tourism agents used to coordinate with Vietnamese counterparts several years back, but gradually, they have begun organizing tours themselves, employing Korean tour guides at cheaper prices.

"The government cannot know what foreign tour guides are telling international tourists about Vietnam. It is totally possible that they cause misunderstandings about Vietnam's culture, history and customs," he said.

Many foreign tour guides were not paid by travel agents and their income comes from tourists' tips and commissions from shops they visit, he said.

"They could take tourists to shops that extort and Vietnamese tourism will suffer," he said.

Huynh Ngoc Van, director of the War Remnants Museum in HCMC, said she has witnessed many foreign tour guides at the museum: "Of course they cannot introduce our country and people as well as Vietnamese tour guides can."

Unskilled locals

The truth, observers say, is that many travel agents are hiring locals with temporary licenses who are not trained to do the job. They have no choice due to high demand and low supply.

Vu The Binh, deputy chairman of Vietnam Tourism Association, said most of more than 8,000 licensed tour guides have not been trained in tourism.

"Most of them graduated in other subjects and have only taken short term tourism training courses for a couple of months or so. Within such a short time, they cannot be trained properly in all aspects of their work, from basic knowledge to ethical standards," he said.

At the beginning of this summer, the HCMC-based Lien Bang Travel Agency had to cancel several bookings from their counterparts in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong because they didn't have enough qualified tour guides who can speak Chinese.

Nguyen Viet Anh, chief of the Travel Agents Management Branch under the HCMC Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said many travel agents in the city have received an increasing number of bookings from abroad, especially from countries where neither English nor French is spoken.

"Travel agents have recruited people who can speak other languages and provided them with some training in tourism, but it is still insufficient," he said.

Recently, a tourism company in Da Nang admitted to using an unlicensed Chinese tour guide after being stopped by tourism authorities in Hoi An.

The company director said he had no choice. He said he also hired Vietnamese-Thai citizens as tour guide for tourists from Thailand although he was aware that it is illegal to do so.

Nguyen Truong Son, director of the Trans-Indochina Travel Agent in Hanoi, said qualified tour guides demand high payment for their services and often modify the tour to earn extra money.

Those who do not tend to have limited knowledge, he said.

"Some cannot explain the curved rooves of Vietnamese pagodas. Others cannot answer when tourists ask about farmers planting rice seedlings," he said.

Nguyen Van Tuan, director of the Nam Phuc Travel Agency, said companies bring tourists to Vietnam, but it is the tour guides who are able to impress them and influence them into coming again.

"During the summer, the number of tourists visiting Vietnam increases drastically, but finding a tour guide with good language and knowledge skills is like "˜finding a needle in the seabed' (Vietnamese saying)."

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