There are many factors responsible for this, but the key reasons are: poor infrastructure, poor tourism promotion; and weak cooperation between travel agents and service providers. These combine to make tour prices in Vietnam less competitive than those in other countries, Nguyen Cong Hoan, vice director of travel agent Hanoi Redtour, told Thanh Nien Weekly.
Thanh Nien Weekly: Vietnam attracts some five million visitors each year. However, the tourism industry's turnover is still modest compared to other countries in the region. Why?
Nguyen Cong Hoan: The tourism industry's revenues depend on the number of tourists, their spending, and the length of time they stay in Vietnam. A large part of our visitors come from China, especially from the country's southern region. They are medium-income earners, so they use medium-priced services. Spending on services by a Chinese visitor to Vietnam is even lower than that of a Vietnamese citizen on local tours. For example, they often make short trips from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, stay in two- or three-star hotels, and eat low-priced meals. Thus, the tourism industry cannot post big earnings.
It is difficult to persuade customers to book longer tours to the northern region, as it does not house that many tourism sites, and does not have good services.
The relatively low turnover, therefore, can be attributed to the increase in visitors coming from markets that use low-priced tourism services. For example, this year, we have seen a growth in the number of Thai visitors, who mainly use low-priced accommodation, transport and food. A European tourist often stays for 10 days in Vietnam, while a Thai tourist books two or three day tours.
We have five million foreign visitors coming to Vietnam each year. However, many of them use tourist visas to travel here for trading purposes. Thus, the number of customers that travel agents have is not large. Then there is the issue of repeating statistics. Some travel agents cooperate together to organize tours, so a visitor is reckoned as a customer by several travel agents. I think the real number of foreign tourists to Vietnam is not as large as the figure that has been reported.
As an Asian country with many special tourism sites, why are we not able to attract more Western visitors who spend more on their visits?
Vietnam's tourism industry has great potential. However, the issue is whether or not our infrastructure is good enough; the system of hotels and restaurants, means of transportation, tourist guides and entertainment services. Ha Long Bay, which is recognized as a world heritage site, is very beautiful. However, it cannot attract visitors if they worry about the risk of ships sinking.
Heritage sites in central Quang Binh Province are great, but there is no high-class hotel except for the Sun Spa Resort.
The Dong Van stone plateau is a global geo-park in Ha Giang Province, but there is not much infrastructure there hotels, transportation and so on. Our infrastructure and services are not good, which have hindered foreign tourists from returning to Vietnam, or recommending the country to other visitors from their countries. Vietnam is one of those countries that sees a small number of foreign visitors returning.
Cooperation within the sector is lacking. For example, Singapore and Thailand have good intra-sector cooperation, so their inbound tours have low prices. They earn more money from other services that visitors use.
Meanwhile, in Vietnam, tour prices are high because the cooperation between transport service providers, hotels and restaurants and travel agents is not very good.
Vietnam welcomed over 5.3 million foreign visitors to the country in the first 11 months of this year, up 15.9 percent over the same period last year. China and Cambodia were among the markets with high growth in visitors, up 49 and 61 percent respectively, according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism.
In 2010, the country attracted five million foreign visitors, and recorded tourism revenues of VND96 trillion, or nearly US$4.6 billion.
Moreover, our tourism promotion itself has room for improvement. All the provinces have tourism promotion steering committees, but they don't know what foreign visitors really need. Provinces organize street festivals and trade fairs to promote tourism. However, visitors do not need them. Localities which have sea tourism advantages should strengthen sea tourism promotion, while those that have caves should promote their caves, and so on.
Are these shortcomings rooted in the lack of capital or in the fact that we do not know how to tap our tourism advantages?
Capital is not a big issue. If our tourism infrastructure is good, many firms are ready to pour their investment into Vietnam's tourism industry. For example, many investors are ready to invest in building three- to four-star hotels in Ha Giang, but they cannot invest in building a road from Hanoi to Ha Giang. The state should invest in infrastructure.
What do foreigners find most attractive about Vietnam?
All foreign tourists to Vietnam like its natural landscapes. These are the most attractive. Vietnam has forests, mountains and seas, and many natural heritages that cannot be seen in the rest of the world. For example, Thailand is famous for sea tourism, but most of Thailand's beaches are not as good as those of Vietnam.
To Western visitors, the culture and customs of ethnic minority groups are also very interesting. Their old-fashioned and simple lifestyle is attractive for foreign visitors who live in modern cities with many high-rise buildings and shopping malls.
So what should we do to address our shortcomings and boost tourism?
We need comprehensive cooperation in the sector. And every Vietnamese citizen should be a tourism ambassador.
We consider tourism a key economic industry, but its short-term return is not as large as that of some other industries. For example, a beautiful rocky mountain can bring greater economic benefits when it is tapped to serve cement production than to boost tourism.
Other countries have continuous tourism development strategies, which we lack. Our tourism development plans are changed often, and the new one is often very different from previous ones.