Insecurity hampers Vietnam metro's tourism growth

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Criminals have become more cunning to avoid police detection; hoteliers blame unchanged security situation for reduced revenues.

A street vendor offers souvenirs to foreign tourists on De Tham Street in Ho Chi Minh City. The city's tourism numbers are allegedly suffering due to safety issues. Photo by Hong Ky

Miranda Kerr and her fiancé were walking in downtown Ho Chi Minh City on October 4 when two hawkers offered them handmade souvenirs.

She picked up a horn comb and was attempting to take out some money for payment when the two female hawkers suddenly walked away quickly.

The confused couple quickly recognized that Kerr's bag had been slit and her 300 Australian dollars gone.

A Vietnamese friend asked them to report the incident to police but Kerr refused, saying she would ask some one else to do that for her later.

According to HCMC police, robberies targeting foreign tourists in the city downtown have not receded despite many efforts by law enforcement.

Tourism experts blamed the lack of safety for tourists for a slowdown in tourism growth over the past months.

In a recent case on September 10, Pakistan tourist Sarah Aziz was walking on District 1's Phan Chau Trinh Street when a robber suddenly snatched her bag and fled with his accomplice who was waiting on a motorbike nearby.

According to Ben Thanh Ward police, Aziz lost US$2,500, a BlackBerry phone, a flight ticket, an iPod and her passport.

On October 8, police arrested two suspects, Pham Phuong Hiep and Huynh Ngoc Hien of District 4.

According to the police, many foreign tourists only spend a few days in the city and they often refuse to report being robbed, fearing it would take too much time, unless they lose important documents like passport.

On October 6, a foreign tourist was walking near the Ben Thanh Market and talking on his cell phone when a robber on motorbike snatched the phone and sped away. The tourist refused to report the incident to police.

More cunning

The District 1 police division recently said they are investigating some employees at Ben Thanh night market suspected to be members of robbery gangs targeting foreign tourists.

"They learned the patrol schedule of the police and tipped their accomplices to rob whenever there is no patrol," a police official said.

Police also said some male robbers dress as female sex workers, especially in the westerners' backpacker quarter on Pham Ngu Lao Street, to steal the property of tourists and to confuse police investigations.

In a recent case on October 9, German tourist Oliver Mass Mann was having a phone call while walking on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street when a woman on a motorbike snatched his phone.

The patrolling police chased after and arrested the robber at a nearby corner.

At the police station, the robber confessed to be Le Van Dat, who is a man but dressed like a woman to avoid tourists' caution.

An official at Ben Nghe Ward police station said many victims have reported about being robbed by female robbers.

"They reported the appearance of the female robbers, and it was difficult to investigate because finally we found out that the robbers were actually men," he said.

Tourism hurt

According to many hotel owners, a lack of security has slowed down the increase in tourism growth recently.

"Most tourists want to go for a walk at night. But it doesn't take long when some women follow. Just a quick chat is enough for them to steal a phone," said Dang Huy Hai, deputy general director of the New World Saigon Hotel.

"If the situation remains the same, no tourist feels of being safe when coming here," he said.

Tao Van Nghe, chairman of the HCMC Hotel Association, said the hotels are actually victims of robberies due to the reduction in the number of guests.

"Many people may misunderstand that our room rate is high. Actually, it is lower than many other countries. But it is the robberies targeting tourists that is chasing tourists away from the city's hotels," he said.

According to Hotel Survey Update H1 2013 released on October 16 by the accounting and consulting firm Grant Thornton Vietnam, in the first half of 2013, Vietnam has seen 3.5 million international arrivals.

Whilst Vietnam has succeeded in maintaining the uptrend seen since 2010, the increase is much lower than the increases seen in neighboring countries. Also the number only accounts for 48.9  percent of the target of 7.5 million international visitors for 2013, implying that more effort needs to be made to complete the mission, according to the report.

The increase in the number of international arrivals coming to Vietnam has slowed down over recent years, from 32 percent in 2010 to only 2.6 percent in 2013.

"In spite of a number of opportunities, it is critical to be aware of the limitations of unsustainable development of Vietnam tourism. The issue has been raised for years but it is still a huge obstacle," according to the survey.

Grant Thorton said visitors continue complaining about overcharging issues and hygiene issues such as public toilets in tourist places.

It hailed a recent plan to set up establish tourism police in cities receiving more than one million visitors a year and said Vietnam needs to have an intensive marketing strategy with a consistent focus, to create a strong brand, and to increase the budget for destination marketing.

"Vietnam's budget for destination marketing is less than $1 million, much less than other neighboring countries," the survey found.

"˜Criminal hub'

At a meeting on October 15 to review security in HCMC, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said he was not happy with figures about crimes in the city.

"The National Assembly's coming session is expected to discuss much about how we tackle crimes, especially robberies and petty thieves in this city.

"The safety of people is just as important as economic growth. We have to fight [against crimes]," he said.

Phuc said that if police are not able to protect against criminals, HCMC will become a "criminal hub."

According to a report by city police, there were 5,109 crimes in the city so far this year, an increase of 144 cases year on year.

Police raided 687 criminal gangs and arrested 1,629 criminals in total.

Phuc said local residents and tourists do not feel safe when looking at the statistics.

"The police have to step up the fight against organized crimes. The head of the local police will face strict penalties if there are organized crimes operating at their places," he said.

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