Vietnam PM calls for tourism overhaul

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Facing a decline in tourism growth, the government has announced its intention to crackdown on petty thieves, aggressive vendors and extorters, as well as establishing a tourism police force

Foreign tourists stroll down a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The government has announced a plan to overhaul the tourism sector, including setting up a tourism police force. Photo by Diep Duc Minh

Xiechao Yang had a frightening experience taking a taxi from Hanoi's Old Quarter back to his hotel on Hang Trong Street on August 8.

After Yang refused the driver's demand for US$600 despite the meter only displaying VND62,000 (US$2.9), the cabbie locked the Chinese tourist inside the cab by knifepoint.

The driver, 37-year-old Nguyen Van Tien, snatched Yang's wallet which contained US$1,200, 400 Hong Kong dollars, 400 Chinese yuan, more than VND1 million and his iPhone before finally letting him go.

Yang was lucky to have his property returned to him after the police arrested Tien three days later, filing robbery charges against him.

The case has reflected worsening security for tourists nationwide, prompting Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to call for an overhaul the country's tourism sector.

According to government statistics, the number of foreign tourists in Vietnam increased from 1.35 million in 1995 to nearly 7 million in 2012. The number of domestic tourists increased from 7 million to 33 million over the same period.

In 2012, revenues from tourism were VND160 trillion ($7.59 billion), accounting for 6 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

However, in the first half of this year, the number of foreign tourists only increased 2.6 percent over last year. The influx of foreigners to Vietnam increased 13.9 and 18.1 percent in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

"Among the reasons for the reduction are an increase in incidents of swindling, extortion and hassling which has threatened the safety of foreign tourists, especially in popular tourist destinations like Hanoi, HCMC, Sam Son Beach in Thanh Hoa, Ha Long Bay, Vung Tau, Nha Trang and Da Lat," read the prime minister's instruction.

The prime minister instructed relevant agencies to carry out "determined and detailed measures, which should be taken immediately to make Vietnam a safe and friendly tourist destination for the long term."

The police have been instructed to step up patrols in urban centers and tourism destinations around the country to improve security during the peak season. Also, they must know foreign languages and act in a friendly manner to visitors.

Petty thieves, aggressive street vendors and extorting taxi drivers must be eliminated.

"At each tourist destination that attracts more than 1 million visitors a year, an assistance center should be opened with a hotline for tourists to contact if they have a problem," Dung was quoted by the government's website as saying.

He also ordered the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to increase fines on those found littering at tourist destinations, or hassling tourists.

The Ministry of Public Security has been told to study the feasibility of establishing a tourism police force.

At a recent press conference to introduce the 2013 Trade Village Festival of Hanoi and the Red River provinces, Vu The Binh, deputy chairman of the Vietnam Tourism Association, said that Vietnam is not leaving a good impression on foreign tourists.

"In many cities and provinces, foreign tourists are still being hassled and extorted by vendors and petty thieves. Therefore, we need a tourism police force to deal with these problems in a timely manner," he said.

He said that last month Hanoi established a center to support tourists.

"However, the center only receives information it doesn't deal with the urgent cases such as when tourists report being robbed," he said, adding that the percentage of tourists who return to Vietnam is still small.

According to George Adam, general manager of the HCMC-based tourism company Exotissimo Vietnam, petty thieves and bag snatchers are common at tourist destination worldwide, but the problem has worsened drastically in Vietnam over the past two years.  

"Setting up a tourist police force that is fluent in English and other commonly spoken languages among tourists is a good idea that has been discussed many times," he told Vietweek. "Just because it's been unsuccessful in the past doesn't mean it cannot work."

Tim Russell, a Briton who used to live and work in Vietnam for 10 years and is now sales and marketing director for the Remote Lands travel agency in Thailand, is also hopeful about the potential of an English-speaking police force due to the huge numbers of Vietnamese studying English.

"The hotlines should be manned by English-speaking graduates who would liaise with the police where necessary; alternatively you could even outsource the hotlines to approved tour operators who already have English-speaking staff with experience of dealing with foreign tourists," said Russell.

Asked about Thailand's recent establishment of a tourism court, he said Vietnam should spend money on increased police presence in tourist areas, better educated tourism sector employees, tourist hotlines, and security cameras in tourist areas.

"Tourist courts punish crimes but don't prevent them, and prevention is the key to restoring Vietnam's declining reputation," he said.

Meanwhile, commenting on the instruction to set up an assistance center and a hotline at destinations where more than one million tourists go each year, Kenneth  Atkinson, chairman of the Vietnam Business Forum Working Group for Hospitality and Tourism in HCMC, said threshold should be reduced to 500,000 tourists to include areas that are becoming tourist hotspots.

"There should be literature handed out at airports to all arriving visitors in key languages such as English, French, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Russian that point out how to identify police and stations that they can go to report incidents and also hotline numbers," said Atkinson.

"Whilst these hotlines exist in some centers they are not well-publicized.

"These measures alone are not likely to have a meaningful impact on return visitors," he explained, saying Vietnam needs to provide visitors more entertainment options, especially those geared toward families.

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