Vietnam drags feet on single visa for Mekong region

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Higher fees, complicated procedures makes it easier for foreign tourists to choose other Southeast Asian nations


A foreign tourist leaves a travel agency in the backpackers' area in Ho Chi Minh City. Experts say expensive visa fees and complicated procedures are among factors influencing the choice of foreign travelers to visit Vietnam. Photo by Tuan Anh 

Imagine being able to explore the extensive network of caves in Laos, visit ancient pagodas in Myanmar and eat spicy street food in Thailand before going into Cambodia and cruising the Mekong in Vietnam all on a single tourist visa.

The tourism windfall that would follow such facilitation has authorities and travel agencies in all countries all agog with the exception of Vietnamese officialdom, that is.

Travel agencies have been pushing for a one-visa policy that would enable tourists to travel freely across Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. But for all the enthusiasm among its neighbors, Vietnam is likely to balk at, experts say.

"The only country that really has reason to dawdle is Vietnam, because it would require a change in mindset and policies," Kenneth Atkinson, chairman of the Vietnam Business Forum Working Group for Hospitality and Tourism, told Vietweek.

Vietnam already rejected the common visa concept when it was first mooted in 2010. Vietnamese tourism officials had argued that the extra visa fees would not deter wealthy travelers and visa waivers would cause major losses to the tourism industry.

But experts have dismissed these arguments, saying wealthy travelers account for a small percentage of visitors. They say the single visa is likely to boost visitor arrivals and offset the fall in visa-processing revenues.

Vietnam, along with Myanmar, has the most complicated tourist visa processes in Southeast Asia, according to experts and tourists.

Most Southeast Asian countries have efficient visa on arrival systems which experts say make it easy for tourists to plan their trips. For Vietnam, tourists have to apply for their visas weeks in advance, send their passports to the Vietnamese embassies or go online for  letters to confirm their visas will be issued on arrival and then ending up waiting for a long time after arriving in the country.

Kirk Irvine, a Briton who has visited Vietnam several times because his sister lives in Ho Chi Minh City, said he'd had to wait at the airport for almost two hours to complete his visa-on-arrival process, compared with around half an hour in neighboring countries.

"I've heard a lot of travelers say things are quite awkward in the visa-on-arrival department," Irvine told Vietweek.

Tourists have also complained that when they go to Cambodia or Laos, they can simply turn up and pay US$25 on arrival while Vietnam charges almost double at $45 for a 30-day or 90-day single entry visa, the most expensive in the region.

"You only have to calculate the fees for a family of 4 to see how significant this cost can be," Atkinson said.

"In these days of budget travel the visa fees for say a family from UK holidaying in Thailand and wishing to visit Vietnam could amount to more than the airfare," he said.>

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"˜Just an idea'

HCMC authorities have urged the Vietnamese government to approach Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos to discuss ways to adopt the single visa policy.

"We need support to call for the participation of all five nations and adopt a [single] visa policy to draw foreign tourists,'' La Quoc Khanh, deputy director of the city's tourism department, was quoted by the Saigon Times as saying at a recent meeting.

While travel agencies have welcomed the move saying anything that streamlines travel to the region is a good thing, Vietnamese tourism leaders are cautious and careful to downplay hopes.

"Nothing has been confirmed yet," said Nguyen Van Tuan, general director of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, an agency whose intervention HCMC has sought on this issue.

"It's just an idea that was brought to the table at a meeting," Tuan told Vietweek.

But changes are afoot in Vietnam's neighborhood.

At the World Economic Forum (WEF) on East Asia held in Myanmar, the host nation, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines on June 5 agreed to set up a common smart visa system modeled after the Schengen visa that applies to the group of 25 European countries.

Thailand has inked a deal with Cambodia on sharing visas for foreign tourists starting last January. Thailand also waives visas for citizens of 55 countries and territories, while Malaysia, a leading tourist attraction in the region, does so for 155.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is also working on a plan based on the Schengen visa to bring in more tourists as the 10-member bloc looks to form an "economic community" in 2015.

"One of the major concerns of the industry, as well as visitors, is the difficulty of obtaining visas, a series of widely differing regulations and information needs for visas," said a five-year Tourism Strategic Plan for the region that was released in 2011.

The diverse region of around 600 million people boasts numerous exotic destinations including the jungle-covered temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia to five-star beach resorts in Bali, appealing to travelers from all walks of life.

ASEAN countries recorded around 77 million foreign visitor arrivals in 2011. Malaysia led the field, followed by Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Brunei.

But while Thailand and Cambodia have recorded year-on-year growth in visitor arrivals of over 20 percent, the number of foreign tourists visiting Vietnam has declined recently.

Nearly 6.85 million international visitors came to Vietnam in 2012, a 13.8 percent year-on-year increase, but in the first five months of this year, the arrival of 2.9 million international visitors marked a year-on-year reduction of 1.4 percent, according to the General Statistics Office.

While Vietnamese authorities have kept talking a lot about tackling the long list of problems that have bedeviled the nation's tourism sector, little headway has been made. Stories about tourists being ripped off or complaining about mediocre services and ugly structures in once naturally beautiful spots have been rife in the media and become major talking points in online forums.

Over the past several months, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has come down strongly on Hanoi and HCMC authorities and ordered them to crack down on crooked taxis that are scaring away foreign tourists from Vietnam. Deputy PM Nguyen Thien Nhan has been repeatedly asking local tourism officials to improve public toilets across the country.

Tourism experts have blamed Vietnam's current visa policy and the lack of a "true" visa on arrival system for limiting the growth in visitor arrivals. They say tourist numbers would increase overnight if there was a genuine visa on arrival policy, adding a one-visa policy for the Mekong region would be of great benefit to both Vietnam and the region as a whole.

"Anything that streamlines travel to the region is a good thing," said Stuart McDonald, who runs an online travel forum for Southeast Asia (travelfish.org).

"With a unified visa I'd expect to see a lot of short trips, for example, backpackers in Phnom Penh going to Saigon for a weekend," McDonald said.

"˜Money talks'

But experts also concur that the single visa plan is not a simple project and it is unlikely to materialize anytime soon.

"The establishment of such a visa will not likely occur in the next five years due to barriers of technology, political issues, concerns of sovereignty and security and the different visa systems in the member states," the ASEAN's tourism strategic plan said.

In Vietnam, the thinking seems to be going against the trend, with talk of scrapping existing visa waivers instead of extending them.

Last month, Vietnamese Deputy PM Hoang Trung Hai instructed the foreign and tourism ministries to report on how visa waivers for nationals of seven Asian and European countries have benefited Vietnam's tourism industry so that the government can decide if it will continue or scrap the policy.

The plan to overturn the waiver was mooted in April by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which criticized the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism for failing to take advantage of the policy to promote tourism. The ministry said such failure had cost state coffers annual losses of $50 million.

It seems difficult to understand why Vietnamese authorities have not bought into the idea that visa waivers are likely to boost tourism, and that scrapping them could have adverse impacts, especially considering the trend in other countries in the region.

But for some, the reason is pretty clear.

"I think there are too many vested interests, too many [people] making too much money for them to turn off this lucrative revenue stream," said Nguyen Van My, chairman of the HCMC-based Lua Viet tourism firm and a vocal critic of Vietnam's tourism policies.

"Money talks. But it is killing the industry."

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