Parking bans, unusual rules stifle tourism sector

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Vietnam will miss out on major opportunities if it creates bottlenecks, instead of removing them, experts say


A street vendor hawks stamp albums to tourists in downtown Ho Chi Minh City

In September this year, Ho Chi Minh City authorities banned parking on the sidewalks of 16 streets in the downtown area, where it had been allowed since 2009, in an effort to lessen traffic congestion during rush hour.

However, the move has turned out to be a burden for the tourism sector: without parking lots, tourist bus drivers have to ride around while waiting for their customers to finish sightseeing a "solution" that leads to fuel wastage, higher tour prices, and more environmental pollution.

Minh, driver for a travel company in HCMC, said tourist buses have been banned from parking on the streets around the city's top destination sites - Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral and Saigon Central Post Office.

So, he usually has to drop tourists on Nguyen Du Street, which is "quite far," before "driving around," or driving to Vo Van Kiet Boulevard, several kilometers away, for parking until he receives a call from the tour guide to return.

"Honestly, we have to take risks in parking in the area (Nguyen Du Street), because we will have to pay fines if we are caught," Minh said.

Nguyen Du is among ten streets that the parking ban applies to in District 1, along with other bustling streets like Han Thuyen and Alexandre de Rhodes. The list also includes six streets in District 3, like Le Quy Don and Pham Ngoc Thach.

Tour guides complain that the ban has also disturbed tourists, because they have to walk a certain distance from where they are dropped to the tourism sites, which exposed them to harassment by street vendors or, even worse, robberies. 

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Similar complaints are being aired in Hanoi, where parking has been recently banned on streets around famous sites like Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) and Tran Quoc Pagoda, T. the director of a transport company, told Vietweek.

Because drivers have to drive around a lot to find a parking lot, fuel costs increase, T. said.

For example, before the ban, a 45-seat bus needed VND600,000 (US$28.68) for fuel a day for 100 kilometers, but now it needs VND900,000 ($43.02) for the same route, because the number of kilometers goes as high as 150, T. said.

Given that transport costs account for 50 percent of a tour's price in Vietnam, the additional fuel costs have in turn increased the price, making Vietnam lose its edge when competing with other regional countries, travel companies' representatives said.

Worse still, the capital city's authorities also ban cars from driving on many main streets during rush hours 6-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m., even though it is the prime time of the day when tourists move around a lot, they complained.

Authorities should issue licenses that give tourist buses priority in parking to pick and drop tourists at tourism sites, they said, adding that other countries in the world have already done this effectively.

Unconventional procedures

It is the norm in every country all over the world that one has to present his or her personal documents while checking into a hotel.  However, in Vietnam, hotels tend to keep the documents, including tourists' passports, until the customers check out.

Explaining the reason for the "unusual convention," Phan Dinh Hue, director of Vong Tron Viet (Vietcircle) Travel Company, said hotels need the documents to register temporary residence with local management agencies and to stop customers from leaving without paying.

But Hue also said he could not tell his customers that these are the reasons when they ask him about this rule.

"If I told them the truth, they would feel that they were not respected," he said.

Tao Van Nghe, chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Hotel Association, said "there is no reason" for hotels to keep customers' personal documents, because all related information has already been recorded by customs agencies when they enter Vietnam.

As for payment, he said, travel companies are responsible for it, if the customers are using their tours, and even if tourists go on their own, hotels can still ask them to pay a deposit in cash or with visa cards as in Thailand, Singapore or China.

Vietnamese hotels should have invested into technology to manage customers' database, or copied customers' documents and reported to agencies like some big hotels already did, according to Nghe.

Phan Than, director of a HCMC-based travel company, said that "troublesome" paperwork in Vietnam has lost the country chances to develop motor tourism, which can bring in big revenues

He said other countries in the Southeast Asia ask tourists to submit four papers vehicles' registration certificates, tourists' résumés, vehicles' information and driving licenses to go on road tours by themselves. 

In Vietnam, tourists have to file at least six other documents including the results of checks done on the vehicle and evidence that they have converted their international driving licenses into a temporary Vietnamese license.

Than said a group of foreign tourists wanted to travel from Thailand to Vietnam on motorbikes, but a local agency asked them to submit the original passports and licenses one week in advance.

"Passports and driving licenses are indispensable documents tourists need all the time, how could we ask for them in advance? Moreover, they were traveling at the time in Thailand; demanding that they submit their passports is as good as saying no to them."

Given that motor tour prices are usually 70 percent higher than normal tours, impractical requirements have cost Vietnam a lot of revenue, Than said.

He also noted that motor tourists often spend generously on shopping, because they can put all the goods in the containers they use for transporting their motorbikes, he added.

Some 6 million tourists had visited Vietnam as of November, up 11.4 percent from the same period last year, according to official statistics.

VIETNAM PROMOTION FAILS TO SPARKLE

Vietnam lacks funds and skills to make impressive video clips to promote tourism, an official admitted after many netizens made unfavorable comparisons of local productions with a South Korean one on Nha Trang, one of the nation's top destinations.

Nguyen Van Tinh, chief of the international cooperation department under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, told VnExpress on Tuesday that the money Vietnam spends on promoting tourism was "too small" compared to other countries.

For instance, the Vietnamese government invests VND50 billion (US2.39 million) in tourism promotion every year, compared to Malaysia's $80 million. Malaysia's promotion video clip, Truly Asia, cost some $1 million, he said.

The lack of funds also cramps other activities promoting tourism, like inviting "only" one or two delegations of travel companies and media firms from main markets for annual promotion programs, he said.

"In my opinion, we need at least $10 million to promote tourism more effectively."

But Tinh said the absence of impressive tourism promotion videos also had to do with "substandard" advertising, designing and production skills.

Asked why Vietnam, despite the lack of funds, had paid very high fees to air its promotion clips on major international television channels like CNN and BBC a couple of years ago, Tinh said it was "effective."

However, speaking to the online newspaper earlier, Luu Duc Ke, director of the Hanoitourist Travel Company, said instead of putting lots of money into advertisements on big international channels for a short time, authorities should have invested more into making quality video clips and other promotional products with long-lasting impacts.

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