Vietnam budget tours to Thailand rife with scams

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Tourists at a circus in Thailand. Many unregistered companies in Vietnam are deceiving tourists by offering cheap tours to neighboring countries and failing to provide adequate services. Photo by Diep Duc Minh

Vu was looking to give his six-year-old daughter a fun summer abroad for the first time when he took a tour to Thailand earlier this month.

The father and daughter instead had their "worst trip ever," one that eventually cost Vu more than double the amount the tour operator had charged for the trip.

"Travel Life [the tourism company] promised everything, like three-star hotels. But we had to stay in cheap hotels that looked just like slums.

"We'd already paid VND14 million (US$665), but finally, I ended up paying an extra VND20 million for the trip," said Vu, who did not want to divulge other personal details about himself.

Vu's experience is not a rare one, but since he was one of 701 tourists stranded in Bangkok recently, the case grabbed headlines and spotlighted the problem of travel companies cheating unsuspecting clients.

Many Vietnamese tourists have had bad experiences in Thailand after taking up offers made by travel agencies who are not authorized to organize tours abroad, industry insiders say.

These companies advertise low-cost tours online and in print publications to lure customers, but fail to supply the promised services.

The contingent of 701 tourists that Travel Life left stranded in Thailand after arriving in Bangkok and attending a two-day conference of a multi-level marketing company (Herbalife) made it back after an ordeal that one person said was "like going into exile."

Thai 2020, Travel Life's partner in Thailand, refused to continue the tour saying the Vietnamese company did not pay them the remaining 70 percent of the money contracted on June 12 as promised.

After the case was widely reported in the media, the Vietnamese flight agent finally took all tourists home and Travel Life "compensated" each of them with VND2.5 million. Relevant agencies are discussing measures to be taken against the company, which had not been licensed to offer international tours.

Following the incident, media investigations found that a large number of travel agencies are cheating tourists with budget tours abroad, and that tourism authorities have not raised an eyebrow. Many of these companies are only registered to organize local tours.

According to the HCMC Culture, Sports and Tourism Department, there are 809 registered tourism companies, of which 458 have been allowed to organize trips abroad. Unofficial estimates put the number of travel agencies in the city at 3,000.

It also seems that most of the cheating happens on tours to Thailand, a popular foreign destination among Vietnamese travelers.

More than 618,000 Vietnamese tourists visited Thailand last year, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

In the first five months of 2013, Thailand received 260,621 Vietnamese visitors, a rise of 10.40 percent over the corresponding period in 2012.

Taking advantage of the destination's popularity, many unauthorized companies have been illegally organizing trips to Thailand.

A company with a license to organize tours abroad has to deposit VND250 million ($11,900) with relevant tourism authorities to ensure compensation to customers or partners abroad.

Phan Dinh Hue, director of the tourism company Vong Tron Viet, said many unlicensed companies that have not made the deposit are taking tourists abroad.

They attract customers by offering low prices and provide very low quality services.

"Their prices for tours to Thailand are very cheap at only $20 per person per day, excluding flight charges. A six-day trip costs just $120, while it takes a minimum of $160 for a reasonable stay," he said.

In a recent report, the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper picked at random nine tourism companies in HCMC that advertise tours abroad and checked their legitimacy with the city tourism department.

The agency said all nine companies were not authorized to take tourists abroad.

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Nguyen Viet Anh, head of the travel division at the HCMC tourism department, said his agency inspects tourism companies two days every week.

"We record violations of at least six companies every week, mostly for advertising tours abroad despite them not being authorized to do so," he said. "But there are countless similar companies; we are unable to fine all of them."

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