Visa waiver could go

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The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is considering overturning its policy of allowing visitors from certain countries to enter Vietnam without a visa

Foreign tourists stroll down a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The Vietnam National Association of Tourism has urged the government not to overturn a visa waiver that allows visitors from seven Asian and European countries to enter the country without visas.

The government may no longer waive the need for visas for nationals of seven Asian and European countries, and experts are worried the move could hurt tourism that has been booming despite the economic downturn.

The Vietnam National Association of Tourism has urged the government not to do so, its chairman, Nguyen Huu Tho, told Vietweek on Monday (April 15), and is hopeful it would pay heed.

Between 2004 and 2009 Vietnam unilaterally waived visas 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 either.

The plan to overturn the waiver was mooted after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism for failing to take advantage of the policy to promote tourism.

Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper quoted Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Thanh Son as saying related authorities have not been effectively promoting "Vietnam's strong tourism potential."

"The tourism agencies insistently asked for waiver of the visa for those countries," Son said.

"Since 5-7 years ago we have "¦ unilaterally waived visas for seven countries "¦ accepting an annual revenue loss of $50 million.

"The issue here is that the tourism industry should have taken advantage of it. But the incremental revenue [from tourists] is too small compared to the loss of the visa fees."

But analysts said the tourism industry has gained much from the waiver and scrapping it would adversely impact the tourism industry.

Tho said there were 5.57 million visitors from the seven countries between July 2004 and June 2012.

At an average of $105 per day, they spent nearly $4.6 billion during their visit, he said.

"Ending [the waiver] will be a shock for tourists and tourism partners in those countries."

Despite the economic situation, Vietnam's tourism industry has seen significant growth in the past several years.

Nearly 6.85 million international visitors came to Vietnam in 2012, a 13.8 percent year-on-year increase.

In the first quarter of this year more than 1.8 million people visited the country, with a majority coming from China, South Korea, Japan, the US, Taiwan, Australia, and Russia.

Revenue from tourism in the period was VND53.5 trillion ($2.54 billion), 7.5 percent up from last year.

According to the Vietnam National Association of Tourism, some 1.45 million visitors in 2012 were from Russia, South Korea and Japan three of the countries whose nationals do not require a visa - and spent an estimated $2 billion.

The waiver attracts more tourists from Scandinavia, it claimed.

Susanna Jacquelin, an attaché at the Finnish embassy, said Finnish tourists are increasingly interested in travelling to Southeast Asia, including Vietnam.

"And as Finland's national carrier Finnair will start direct flights from Helsinki to Hanoi in June this year we look forward to seeing even more tourists coming to Vietnam," she told Vietweek.

She said around 8,000 Finns visit Vietnam every year, but the number could be higher because many travelers do not register with the embassy.

According to the National Strategy on Tourism Development, three of the seven countries in the waiver list -- Japan, Russia, and South Korea -- are major markets for Vietnam.

The industry is worried about the fallout of scrapping the visa waiver since several countries in the regions do not require nationals of many other countries to get visas.

Thailand waives visas for citizens of 55 countries and territories, while Malaysia does so for 155.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has also stressed the importance of the visa issue for the last few years.

"Tourism ministers gathered in London for the 6th UNWTO/World Travel Market Ministers' Summit concluded that complicated visas processes and policies that limit air connectivity continue to present major barriers to the growth of travel and tourism," it said in a press release following the event last year.

"Ministers and representatives from major tour operators and airlines further called for increased intra-governmental cooperation and support from the highest levels of government to break such barriers."

According to UNWTO research, between 2010 and 2012 more than 40 countries made significant changes to their visa policies to facilitate travel, issuing visas on arrival or online or even waiving the need for visas.

But visas remain a major obstacle to tourism development.

But Nguyen Ngoc My, director of the Ho Chi Minh City-based Lua Viet Tours and a member of the HCMC Tourism Association, said the plan to scrap the waiver is a warning to tourism authorities.

Echoing Son, the deputy foreign minister, My said: "It's the fault of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism which should have been more active in making the best out of the policy."

CONTINUE VISA EXEMPTION, EXTEND DURATION: TOURISM STEERING COMMITTEE

The State Steering Committee on Tourism is set to recommend that Vietnam continue to grant unilateral visa exemptions to nationals of seven countries and increase the single-entry visa's duration from 15 to 30 days.

The seven countries are Japan, South Korea, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

At a meeting of the committee in Hanoi on Tuesday, members also agreed that the government should issue more policies to attract international tourists to Vietnam.

The committee will propose that the government regulate tourism prices and allocate more funds for tourism promotion, according to a report on the government's website.

At the meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan instructed the agency to step up nationwide inspections of tourism services, focusing on security for tourists at major destinations like Hanoi, Quang Ninh and Ho Chi Minh City, availability of quality toilets and other services.

He asked the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to come up with a proposal to improve the quality and competitiveness of Vietnamese tourism and submit it to the government in June.

He also tasked the Ministry of Defense to prepare a plan to send more foreign tourists to former battlefields of the Vietnam War.

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