Penny wise, pound foolish

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Meager promotion budget and short-sighted visa policy leave Vietnam struggling to attract tourists

Foreign tourists in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The increase in the number of Japanese tourists visiting Vietnam has been minimal in first half of this year and this is emblematic of Vietnam's failure to effectively market itself, experts say. Photo: Bach Duong

The number of Japanese tourists visiting Vietnam in the first half of this year marked a 1.9 percent year-on-year increase at 294,487, according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT).

VNAT says this marks a significant reduction compared to the annual increase of 12-23 percent recorded between 2010 and 2012.

Industry insiders say these figures are emblematic of Vietnam's failure to effectively market itself, rooted in the meager allotment of funds to the absence of research and the pursuit of very short-sighted policies.

"I think it is true to say that Vietnam has not done a good job in promoting itself abroad largely due to a lack of funds for advertising and a promotion budget that is currently less than US$1 million," Kenneth Atkinson, chairman of the Vietnam Business Forum Working Group for Hospitality and Tourism, told Vietweek.

"Similarly I do not think that Vietnam has done any real research on what visitors from their target markets really want."

David Watson, general director of the HCMC-based tourism firm Industry Travel Asia, also criticized the ineffective marketing of Vietnam.

"No marketing is done to present modern Vietnam, rather the reliance is on historic/classic images of kids on buffaloes, women in Ao Dai, and old men smoking pipes," Watson told Vietweek.

"Very little (marketing) if any has been done to promote beaches, highlands, mountain trekking and 'off-the-path' opportunities."

Takahiko Ohata, chairman of the Overseas Tour Operators Association of Japan (OTOA), said a factor in reduced tourism interest among Japanese youth could be that they have more virtual entertainment options in the digital age.

However, he said, that Vietnam's tourism industry has failed to make a good case for itself.

"There is a lack of information on the beauty and charms of Vietnam while countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have their tourism representative offices in Japan. They conduct frequent national level tourism campaigns that offer promotions," a Tuoi Tre report quoted Ohata as saying.

He said Vietnam's tourism promotion is mostly done by Vietnam Airlines and a handful of tourism companies.

What Vietnam Airlines has been selling does not meet Japanese tourists' actual demand, and tourism companies focus only on their products, not offering up a larger picture of Vietnam, he said.

"For example, which beach to go to, where to go shopping or where to study local culture these are things that governmental agencies should introduce, not leave it to tourism companies that typically lack the competency to do so," he said.

He said the quality of hotels, restaurants and means of transport as well as the Japanese language skills of local tour guides were other factors affecting decisions to travel to Vietnam.

Despite these drawbacks, Vietnam has remained the second destination of choice for Japanese tourists after Thailand among ASEAN countries, he said.

However, if Vietnam is to charge visa fees like it is reportedly planning, the number of Japanese tourists will surely reduce significantly, he said.

Between 2004 and 2009 Vietnam unilaterally waived visas for single-entry visits of up to 15 days for Danish, Finnish, Japanese, Norwegian, Russian, South Korean, and Swedish visitors.

But in April, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was considering scrapping the visa waiver for the nationals of those seven countries. It slammed the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism for failing to take advantage of the policy to promote tourism, saying the underused policy had forced it to accept losses of US$50 million annually.

A month later, Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai instructed relevant agencies to report about the impact of the free visas visitors from seven countries have been enjoying before the government decides whether it will continue with the policy. He instructed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to review the policy's political, economic and security impacts and submit its findings to the government.

But experts maintain that the tourism industry has gained much from the visa waiver and scrapping it would adversely impact the tourism industry.

"It is a short term departmental money grab," Watson said.

"Vietnam would surely benefit from following China's and Japan's example of visa free travel, allowing foreign money to flow into the community at all levels."

Since July 1, Japan has waived visa requirements for tourists from Thailand and Malaysia. It has also offered multiple-entry visas to Filipino and Vietnamese travelers, enabling them to visit Japan several times within a period of three years.

Experts say by relaxing the visa requirements, Japan is utilizing the concept "˜the cheaper the grapes the sweeter the wine', by making it easy for local Asian travelers to visit the country. For Vietnam, an influx of Vietnamese tourists will most certainly create interest in reciprocal travel back to Vietnam by Japanese tourists, they say.

Apparently, the Vietnamese government looks set to heed the advice of tourism insiders.

"Our understanding is that the pilot project which grants visa waiver to visitors from Japan will be continued," Atkinson said.

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