Winning the war, losing the battlefields

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War heritages carry great tourism potential, but Vietnam's patchy record inspires no confidence it can be tapped effectively, experts say

A foreign child visitor with a Vietnamese flag at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. A new proposal to develop battlefield tourism in Vietnam has failed to excite tourism industry insiders who doubt concerned authorities have the imagination, vision or skills to effectively exploit the potential niche.  

If a word association exercise were to mention "Vietnam," it would not be surprising if most, if not all international respondents, said "War."

The association would be apt not only because of the Vietnam War against the United States, but also thanks to the long history the country has of fighting invaders as well as colonial and imperial forces the Chinese, the French and the Americans.

Now, a small war of words and ideas has broken out over the idea of offering battlefield tours, taking advantage of Vietnam's long history of defending itself.

Some argue that there would be no real interest in such tours at this time and age. Others say that there is a lot of potential for battlefield tourism, but Vietnam is likely to botch it up with unimaginative developments that have been the rule rather than the exception over the last couple of decades.

"I don't see this developing any further than just a thought. Very few, if any, are really interested in exploring Vietnam's war past in 2013," said Paul Levrier, executive director of the tourism company Destination Asia.

Levrier, who has spent 20 years organizing Vietnam tours, says his company has handled very few war veteran groups, and individual travelers have rarely shown anything more than a mild, curious interest in the war.

American Carl Robinson, a former war correspondent who has led tours into Vietnam since 2002, says that over the years he has tried to interest foreigners in "history-oriented tours."

Such tours would go as far back as 2879 BC, when the Hung Kings, Vietnam's founding rulers, reigned. They would also revisit battles against the Chinese and Mongol invaders in the 10th and 13th centuries, and carry on into the modern era with the routing of the French and the Americans.

"But no one is interested in history and even less in military history," Robinson told Vietweek.   

Telling and retelling

However, elsewhere in the world, the US Civil War and World War I tourism in Europe are significant industries in their own right, experts say.

They say that Vietnam's history is a story that bears telling and retelling and battlefield tourism can help do this.

In Southeast Asia, with the exception of Laos, no other country would be able to roll out such an "appealing" battlefield tourism sector like Vietnam, said Nguyen Van My, an experienced tourism expert who chairs the Ho Chi Minh City-based Lua Viet travel agency.

But just like his foreign peers, My says he is not confident that the battlefield tourism blueprint will be a success.

"We don't have tourism leaders who dare think outside the box and be different," he said, adding that the battlefield tours should be tailored in such a fashion that they carry both a sense of adventure and fun.

"Tours to the Cu Chi tunnels or the War Remnants Museum would be much better if they were not too propagandistic."

At a recent meeting with the State Steering Committee on Tourism, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan tasked government agencies to prepare a plan to increase the number of foreign visitors to former battlefields.

Proponents of the plan say the availability of numerous, diverse war-related sites in Vietnam would enable battlefield tourism to play a key role in lifting locals out of poverty and fortifying diplomatic exchanges.

Nguyen Van Tuan, chief of the Vietnam National  Administration of Tourism, the government agency chiefly responsible for coming up with the battlefield tourism blueprint, said: "In the short run, the plan should focus on sending [foreign] tourists to battlefield sites where Vietnam fought the French and American troops."

"These tours should be focused enough" to pull in tourists, Tuan said.

Poor track record

But the track record of Vietnam's tourism authorities so far does not inspire confidence that they can effectively tap the potential of battlefield tourism, observers say.

They say that Vietnam offers travelers a rich and broad experience thanks to its natural beauty and the friendly nature of the Vietnamese people, not because authorities have managed the tourism sector well.

"The problems is that most of what is good about Vietnam as a travel destination happens in spite of, rather than because of, good management and leadership," said Mark Bowyer, a tourism expert who founded Travel Indochina and runs the website www.rustycompass.com.

"Over the past 20 years, Vietnam's tourism sector seems to have been led by a simple mantra "˜big is beautiful.' But it rarely is," Bowyer said.

Huge investments, often with golf courses and casinos attached, have been the prize most provinces have sought, leaving other priorities neglected, experts say.

They say that the stretch of beach between Hoi An and Da Nang in central Vietnam, once one of the nicest open beach areas in the world but now littered with functioning and non-functioning "resorts," is an especially horrendous example of this. Phu Quoc and Con Dao islands are poised to follow suit.

Tourism experts are concerned that the historic sites might lose their authenticity and relevance if they are exploited the way the nation's natural beauty has been so far, resulting in haphazard, ungainly developments, pollution, destruction of forests, defacing of beaches and other negative impacts.

Robinson, the former war correspondent who currently lives in Australia, says he led foreign tourists to former battlefields in the Central Highlands only to see "there was no jungle left because coffee had been planted everywhere."

While authorities have repeatedly pledged and made noises about tackling the long list of problems that have bedeviled Vietnam's tourism sector, little headway has been made and a spate of stories about tourists being ripped off over the past weeks in Hanoi has only highlighted it.

Vietnam has also failed to exploit other distinct tourism advantages it enjoys and carve a niche for itself.

World famous marketing professor and consultant Philip Kotler had once suggested that Vietnam should brand itself as "a kitchen of the world."

"Vietnamese food"¦ is hot right now, with celebrity chefs such as Bobby Chinn, Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern all filming shows in Vietnam and raving about the country's food culture," said Tim Russell, 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.

But this facet of Vietnamese culture has been ignored by the authorities and by many tour operators, who still insist on taking clients to touristy restaurants rather than guiding them to the real thing, experts say.

The yawning gap between tourism policies and tourists' interests reflects best why the country's tourism industry has trailed behind its neighbors and why the latest plan to develop battlefield tourism has attracted such a tepid response.

"A certain arrogance has prevailed in the upper levels of the Vietnamese tourism industry with officials thinking that they know what foreign tourists want to do and thinking that foreign tourists want the same things as local tourists," said My, the HCMC-based expert.

"With such an attitude, they cannot boost the normal tourism market, let alone such a special one like battlefield tours."

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