Vietnam drags feet on visa reforms

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Government unlikely to relax visa regime, allowing other nations to get ahead in attracting visitors

Foreign tourists stroll down a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The Vietnam Business Forum said in its annual report released this week that there has been "˜no progress' in ushering in a transparent, open, and effective visa-on-arrival system in Vietnam, warning the country's failure to streamline its visa procedures will see it fall further behind its neighbors in wooing visitors. Photo by Hong Ky  

Vietnam's failure to act on its rhetoric about simplifying its visa procedures, including those relating to visa-on-arrival, will see it fall further behind its neighbors in wooing visitors, a business grouping has warned.

The Vietnam Business Forum, a consortium of international and local business associations and chambers of commerce, said in its annual report released last month that there has been "no progress" in ushering in a transparent, open, and effective visa-on-arrival system.

"It has been noted the "˜visa-on-arrival' area at the airport provides no clear information on the necessary forms, policies, or fees; little English is spoken; and there is no queuing/numbering system in place," the report said.

This is in contrast to most other Southeast Asian countries, which have efficient visa-on-arrival systems that 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 end up waiting for a long time after arriving in the country.

"With the exception of Myanmar, Vietnam is the only country in Southeast Asia where visitors from major tourist nations "¦ still have to go through a pre-approval process before traveling," the report said.

Tourists also complain 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.

But, admit experts and tourists, while visa fees are an issue they do not deter many people from coming. What does put off people is the lack of a true visa-on-arrival system as found in Cambodia or Thailand.

"So we consider that Vietnam is an exception rather than the rule and that its current visa policy is deterring foreign visitors rather than encouraging them," Kenneth Atkinson, head of the grouping's Working Group for Hospitality and Tourism, told Vietweek.

At a biannual meeting with the Vietnam Business Forum (VBF) last June, Vietnamese officials had promised several major improvements to the visa system.

"This issue has been proposed by donors to the government and the process is already underway," Huynh Vinh Ai, deputy tourism minister, had said.

The authorities promised to introduce an online visa system that would enable registration for visa-on-arrival. They also revealed plans to work with neighboring countries to hammer out a single-visa policy that would enable tourists to travel freely across Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

But all these plans have remained "in progress," the VBF report said.

The only commitment the Vietnamese government has honored is the continued visa waiver for single-entry visits of up to 15 days for Danish, Finnish, Japanese, Norwegian, Russian, South Korean, and Swedish nationals.

Citizens of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member countries do not need a visa to enter Vietnam.

The VPF report urged Vietnam to expand the visa exemptions to countries that "can potentially account for significant tourism revenue, such as the EU member states, the US, Canada, Australia, or Hong Kong."

It is in the context of changes happening in Vietnam's neighborhood that the rationale for doing so is evident, experts say.

Last June, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines agreed to set up a common smart visa system modeled after the Schengen visa issued by 25 European countries. Thailand inked a deal with Cambodia on sharing visas 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.

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.

The diverse region of around 600 million people boasts numerous exotic destinations including the jungle-covered Angkor Wat temple 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 experts say the single visa plan 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," ASEAN's tourism strategic plan said.

Although Vietnam received a total of 4.2 million foreign tourists in the first 11 months of this year, up 12.1 percent from a year ago according to latest government statistics, the VBF report said: "We are seeing significant lower growth in arrival numbers compared to our neighbors, including Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand, all of whom have more efficient visa-on-arrival systems."

If visas cannot be waived outright for countries with large numbers of visitors, "then Vietnam's present visa-on-arrival system should be simplified," it said.

There is no sign that the system will improve anytime soon, and experts say they are not optimistic that Vietnam will become more generous in waiving visas for a larger group of visitors.

In a country where the growing backlash against the influx of illegal foreign workers has shown no sign of letup, lawmakers have repeatedly urged the government to tighten controls on foreigners overstaying their 15-day visa to usurp locals' jobs or even commit crimes.

While this move is apparently aimed at unskilled Chinese workers and African nationals, the collateral damage on those who are not targeted is inevitable, experts say.

At a recent session of the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, lawmakers urged greater caution in waiving visas for foreigners to strike a balance between "ensuring national sovereignty" and "meeting the needs of international integration and economic development."

"We ask that the National Assembly review the unilateral visa waiver for  South Korean, Japanese, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, Danish, and Russians nationals," Ha Huy Thong, a lawmaker, said.

He said the exemptions have to be evaluated for their impact on laws, consular security, and tourism so that "we can propose appropriate solutions in the future."

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