Vietnam seems to be doing its best to lose the very things that attract tourists, Paul Levrier, chief country representative of travel firm Destination Asia has said.
Children play at a mountainous village near Sapa resort town. Vietnam's cultural attractions lie mostly in the day to day life and society, not in zoned, commercialized tourist sites. (Photo by Nghia Pham)
Thanh Nien Weekly: Why do visitors choose Vietnam over other countries in the region with better infrastructure?
Paul Levrier: Primarily because of the unknown or the desire to visit destinations that are less commercial and have maintained strong cultural and traditional attractions. Most guests, when asked why they have chosen to visit Vietnam, will say they want to travel here now before the country becomes too commercial or loses its charm and traditions.
It is ironic that this is why visitors come here and yet the country seems to be doing its best to lose the very things that attract tourists.
Can you elaborate?
Sadly, I feel that Vietnam is placing itself out of reckoning in attracting the higher spending culturally interested visitor. As the country develops, it is losing much of its history and charm to the scale of uncontrolled construction.
Without maintaining the country's historical attractions and landscapes there will be little to hold the interest of tourists who need to feel and experience a country that was once rich in history and retains its cultural attractions.
What are your customers' general reactions when they begin and end their trips to Vietnam?
Most customers would complain about the same things they experience elsewhere. Poor service from guides, overpriced hotels, lack of infrastructure... This is common in many developing countries. It is also common in many developed countries!
Often it is very important how you plan a trip and how you sell or place emphasis on certain parts of the trip. A carefully planned trip that caters to guest interests, regardless of any infrastructure limitation will always result in a satisfied customer so long as you can also provide them with basic quality services.
Do your customers, when visiting other Southeast Asian countries, experience problems similar to those they face when arriving in Vietnam?
Arriving by air into Vietnam these days is relatively straightforward. The visa on arrival process is still complicated and needs to be addressed; however, for general arrivals into Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, it is as simple as other countries in the region. Saigon (Tan Son Nhat) airport, in particular, is very efficient.
What about Vietnam's tourism governing body?
Vietnam still does not have a strong governing tourism body that takes into account the interests of all the market sectors, particularly when compared to neighboring locations such as Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. It is all very divided and most are left to promote the destination in their own way, hence it is hard to have a distinct image of Vietnam. Personally, I cannot see this changing in the near future.
So what is the greatest difficulty that travel agents like yours face in mapping tours to Vietnam?
Actually the greatest challenge these days is to create tours that avoid the "tourist traps." This was never a problem a number of years ago, as tourism was still relatively young. But as sites have become more and more commercial and, in particular, lack any development control, our greatest difficulty is sending guests to well known places without them coming back complaining how commercial or how damaged an area is. We are now having to make tours that spend less time in these places, and more emphasis on local experiences to ensure our guests take away something memorable.
How do you assess the potential for Vietnam's tourism sector then?
I believe the potential for regular "˜beach tourism' is high, and this is certainly the focus of future hotel and resort development, particularly in the Da Nang to Hoi An strip. I can certainly see this increasing once a number of more high profile hotels open and this then, naturally, attracts the demand for more flights into the region.
However, as the country develops, it is losing much of its history and charm, because of the scale of uncontrolled construction
The rise of Asian countries into a modern society is nothing new, however, countries like Thailand, China and Indonesia have a large number of vestiges of cultural history that have been preserved and even enhanced to fit into the modern landscape.
Vietnam, on the other hand, is obviously following a path of almost complete destruction and trying to reinvent itself through the practice of isolating its cultural attractions into zoned, commercialized tourist sites rather than as part of the fabric of day to day life and society.
Europe is a prime example of what can be done with control and foresight. It is not all perfect but over 50 million tourists come to France each year, primarily to experience its living history, its architecture, its arts and local cultures. This also applies for the rest of Europe.
An increasing amount of tourists are coming from Asia for the same reason, so it is no longer just a "Western" interest. That is not to say that tourism will not flourish with the new Vietnam. It will, but it will be a different type of visitor that will come and, for the most part, they will have little interest in what Vietnam has to offer culturally.
So what should Vietnam do?
Maintain, enhance and stimulate Vietnam's cultural attributes. Careful construction, planned, sensitive development will always attract more people back to a country then a place that is after fast money. It is not so much what the authorities themselves can do but this responsibility also falls down to the private investor and developer who must contribute to the image and tourism appeal of Vietnam rather than doing their best to destroy it.