Smartphone app for cab users a soft touch

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New hi-tech solution will have very limited impact on vexing problem of taxi fraud, authorities yet to show real intent, experts say


Fake taxis in front of the Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1. The area is notorious for the presence of fake taxis backed by criminal gangs that extort exorbitant fares from unsuspecting locals and foreign tourists.

Stories about foreign visitors and locals being ripped off by taxis keep cropping up relentlessly in media reports, making people wonder whether there is really any genuine interest in dealing with the problem, particularly in the major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Now, a hi-tech solution is being touted as a breakthrough, but skeptics abound.

Experts and industry insiders say the new solution a free application for smartphones will certainly help in the fight against overcharging cabbies and fake taxis, helping passengers identify licensed taxis, the best route and the right fare.

However, they also said it can only deal with the symptoms in certain cases and that many other actions are required to tackle the root of the issue, which is among the major problems plaguing Vietnam's tourism industry.

Alberto Moreno, general manager of the HCMC-based mobile application developer Vn-Apps, said the application, Tappxi, was specifically designed to address the issues with taxis in Vietnam.

"From our own experience and from what we have learned from the media in recent years, there have been many cases where passengers have suffered at the hands of dishonest taxi drivers.

"The situation is especially dramatic among foreign visitors and expats, due to problems in communications," he said.

Tappxi was officially launched at the beginning of 2013 for Android smartphones and the developer is working on a version for the iPhone.

Moreno said the targeted users include foreign tourists, expats and Vietnamese nationals who arrived to a city they do not know.

"Usually these persons are not capable of orienting themselves in the city, so they are prone to be cheated by dishonest taxi drivers who pretend to get lost or take the long way around," he said.

The application features a list of licensed taxi firms, a map to display the optimal route to the destination and estimated fare. The current itinerary can be traced by the GPS in the smartphone.

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Passengers can show the address written in Vietnamese to the taxi driver and the map with the route to follow.

Treating symptoms

Many passengers and drivers said they are not even aware of the application and that it could hardly make significant changes to the situation.

Lincoln, an American expat in HCMC, said Tappxi is "quite clever and could be useful in some situations, but also has some drawbacks."

"It needs an Internet connection to plot the route on the map and calculate the fee. Most tourists arriving in HCMC probably do not have a local SIM card and might be reluctant to incur huge roaming charges if they use their home phone carrier.

"One usually takes whatever taxi one can get due to the rush of passengers waiting to be taken into town. Therefore, I don't see this app as a really useful tool for arriving tourists," said Lincoln, who has been living in HCMC for nearly ten years.

He said a police hotline would be useful in potentially dangerous situations.

Last week, Lincoln got into a fake taxi on a street in HCMC's District 5 with a rigged meter. "When the taxi stopped I just paid him what I thought was the correct fare and got out, ignoring his protests," he said.

Mark Bowyer, publisher of the independent online tourism site Rusty Compass, said taxi problems afflict tourists the world over and the latter are at their most vulnerable when traveling in a taxi in strange lands.

"Why doesn't the [tourism department] accredit the best companies and require that they set up a simple code of conduct for handling tourists and then allow them to display an official endorsement from the city as a "˜Traveler aware' taxi operator?," he said.

Con, a Saigon Tourist taxi driver, said the new application is useful in some cases because even some drivers of well-known firms use rigged meters.

"But what if passengers are driven to a dark place and threatened? They can't show their smartphones with the calculated fees unless they want the phone be robbed by the driver."

"The application is just a treatment of the symptoms. It cannot address the root that can't solve the actual root cause of the problem," he said.

Nguyen Bao Toan, deputy general director of Anh Duong Viet Company that owns Vinasun taxi, said he supports the new application and is willing to cooperate with the developer if the pilot stage proves effective.

He said Vinasun has accurate and approved meters with seals to prevent drivers from manipulating.

"We train drivers to meet certain requirements and dismiss those who found with violations like driving around [to increase the fare]," he said.

However, another official at Vinasun, who wanted to remain anonymous, expressed concern that the application can create controversies if the calculation is inaccurate or when the driver wants to avoid a congested street and what could be a longer route in terms of distance, but shorter in terms of time.

Impacts on tourism

At a recent conference of the State Steering Committee on Tourism, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan instructed the Minister of Transport to install microchips in licensed taxis after taxi-related fraud was identified as one of the major reasons behind a first quarter reduction in tourist arrivals this year. 

According to the General Statistics Office, more than 1.8 million international visitors arrived in Vietnam in the first quarter of this year, a decrease by 6.2 percent from the same period last year.

The Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) recently reported a "continuous" decline in tourist arrivals, with the April number of about 614,000 international visitors marking a 2.4 percent year-on-year decrease.

Nguyen Manh Cuong, VNAT deputy director, admitted it is "not rare" that tourists are ripped off.

"I have witnessed and have been a victim of fraudulent taxis myself, with the payment demanded three times the legal fare. I know clearly that it's swindling, but I couldn't do anything but pay up," he told local news website VnExpress in a recent interview.

Stricter punishment of violators and proactive action by local authorities against taxi fraud are more important in tackling a problem that threatens tourism development in Vietnam, experts reiterate.

Nguyen Van My, chairman of the HCMC-based Lua Viet Tours, said the new application would not be able to solve the problem fully.

"There should be stricter punishment against the taxi drivers and their companies. The companies have to be responsible for their drivers. The company should have its business registration revoked if their drivers repeat violations for the third time. Violating drivers should also face criminal charges," he said.

Vu The Binh, deputy chairman of Vietnam Tourism Association, said the swindling of tourists has been happening for "dozens of years."

"Tourism companies and associations have reported to relevant authorities but to no avail. The question is whether local authorities are concerned. If they are, the case can be solved," he said.

He noted that in the recent case where a cyclo driver collected VND1.3 million from Australian tourist Ilona Schultz for a distance that should have cost around VND150,000, the police only needed one day to identify the driver.

Two days after the incident, VNAT director Nguyen Van Tuan met and apologized to Schultz and returned her money on the behalf of local police.

But in an editorial on May 5, the central government's online newspaper wrote: "No matter how nice it was, the apology cannot maintain the capital's tourism image for long.

"The problem is for how long we will have to keep apologizing if timely, decisive actions are not taken to maintain the safety of tourists."

RECENT ACTIONS

Following several instances of foreign tourists being cheated in Hanoi in recent weeks, the city's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism has proposed that the city administration stipulate stricter punishments.
City police should conduct regular patrols, especially near tourism destinations and accommodations in order to deal with people preying on tourists, it said.
It called on residents and tourists to report any adverse incidents to local authorities.
The Hanoi Taxi Association launched two hotlines, (04) 3 771 0851 and
(04) 3 852 5252 to receive complaints and reports about taxi services.
In another action, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has proposed that the government halve the value added tax and corporate income tax for tourism companies in 2013 to promote tourism in the country.
The ministry said increasing prices of fuel and electricity, as also increases in land tax had led to an increase in tour prices at a time when prices in neighboring countries were falling, making local enterprises and relevant services less competitive.

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