Russian tourists get off a plane at Phu Quoc International Airport. Experts are urging the creation of more tourism products to attract international tourists for long stays on the island after it granted a 30-day visa waiver and launched a direct flight to Russia. PHOTO: MAI VONG
On February 14, Phu Quoc International Airport welcomed the first direct flight run by Russian helicopter airline Ikar with 250 Russian tourists aboard, but only 48 chose to stay on the island.
Through March 11, there were three more directs flights from Russia to Phu Quoc, but in total, only 208 Russian tourists remain on the island.
More than half of the passengers on the four flights chose to travel to Cam Ranh Bay in Khanh Hoa Province.
Experts are calling for the improvement and diversification of tourism products to attract more international visitors to Phu Quoc after the government granted favorable policies for tourists visiting Vietnam’s largest island.
Dubbed “Pearl Island,” Phu Quoc is located in a UNESCO-recognized World Biosphere Reserve off Vietnam's southeastern coast.
As a district of Kien Giang Province, it has a total area of 574 square kilometers (222 square miles) and a permanent population of approximately 85,000.
Last December, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung signed a decision which allows foreigners who visit Phu Quoc Island for up to 30 days without a visa.
According to the decision that took effect on March 10, visa waivers will also be implemented for foreigners who transit at any airport or seaport in Vietnam on their way to Phu Quoc.
The island will get a north-south highway and many more roads, as well as upgrades to its current airport and seaport and other projects between 2014-1015.
The island will establish the Phu Quoc administrative economic zone, which is expected to open in 2020.
It is forecast that by that time Phu Quoc will receive 2-3 million tourist arrivals per year, with 35-40 percent of them as foreigners.
According to the provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Phu Quoc received 548,000 tourist arrivals between January and October last year, a 27.8-percent increase annually. Around 90,000 of the arrivals were from abroad.
The island received about 200,000 tourists over the first two months of this year.
Phu Quoc has been listed as one of the Best Winter Trips 2014 by National Geographic Traveler magazine.
According to the magazine, some of Vietnam’s best beaches are on heart-shaped Phu Quoc Island, and what’s bringing international travelers and, so far, restrained development to Phu Quoc today are its warm, turquoise waters, secluded, deep sand beaches, and its lush, mountainous interior, which is protected as a national park.
However, in a recent article, Saigon Times Daily reported that Russian tourists, who have showed much interest in Vietnamese beaches, seemed to be immune to Phu Quoc’s charms.
The Phu Quoc International Airport authorities and international travel agencies said only a small number of Russian tourists stay in the island although many came to it on direct flights from Russia.
Some international travel agencies in Ho Chi Minh City said Russian tourists are not interested in Phu Quoc because room rates there are usually higher than those in Da Nang, Cam Ranh and Phan Thiet.
On the other hand, recreational services offered on Phu Quoc beaches are not as diverse as in other places.
As the number of standard hotel rooms in Phu Quoc is limited, travel agencies sometimes have to sign contracts with prices 30 percent higher than in other places, which ruffled Russian tourists’ feathers, the agencies explained.
Many tourism companies are expecting to cash in thanks to the visa exemption and a recent direct flight from Russia.
Nguyen Quoc Phu, owner of Phu Van Resort in the island’s Duong Dong Town, said he and other resort owners on the island are optimistic that the visa exemption will bring them more guests.
According to the island’s authorities, about 500,000-600,000 tourists visit the island each year, of which 40 percent are foreigners.
Tran Dang Minh Uyen, director of Win Way Tourism Company in HCMC, said some islands in other countries also offer visa exemptions for international visitors.
“For example, Jeju Island in South Korea has attracted many tourists from Vietnam after it offered visa exemptions for Vietnamese people,” she said.
More to do
However, experts said there should be an overall plan for tourism development or else Phu Quoc will not attract more international tourists.
Pham Trung Luong, deputy director of the Institute for Tourism Development Research, said Phu Quoc Island current policies aim to attract tourists for long stays.
“However, whether tourists will stay for long time depends on how attractive tourism products are, and not on visa exemptions.
“If there are not many attractive tourism products, a five-day stay is more than enough. Thus, Phu Quoc has to create more products to attract tourists for long stays,” he said, adding that a casino could be one such product.
Uyen, the director of Win Way Tourism Company, also said the number of tourists coming to Phu Quoc has increased in recent years but the number of personnel is insufficient for services on the island.
“There are too many unprofessional tour guides on the island. They colluded with souvenir and pearl shops to bring tourists and take commissions, prompting high prices.”
“The government granted open policies to attract tourists to Phu Quoc but there should be more synchronicity in improving human resources, infrastructure and prices. Otherwise, a 30-day visa exemption is no different than a 15-day one,” she said.
Tran Bao Thu of Fiditour said that currently three days to one week is enough for a stay on Phu Quoc, even for those who enjoy its fishing services.
“The island should diversify its tourism services. Tourists will have nothing else to do if they stay for 15 days.”
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