The well-hidden charm

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Poor tourism management has squandered Vietnam's beautiful landscapes and unique culture, leaving foreign travelers with boring tours and polluted beaches, experts said.

Foreign tourist pose for a photo during the 2010 Tet festival in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

The country welcomed a total of 3,772,360 international tourists in 2009, a figure 10.9 percent lower than the previous year, according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT).

About 80 percent of international tourists included beaches in their tours in Vietnam. More than 70 percent of the country's tourist hotspots are located near the coast.

But many experts said that tourism investments along the coast have not been properly implemented as companies rush to block beaches with resorts and pollute the environment.

"Binh Thuan Province's town of Phan Thiet cashes in only from rent at hotels and resorts at Mui Ne beach and there's no remarkable income from other services that are often the main benefits of tourism," said Tran Vinh Loc, director of Lac Hong Voyages Company in Ho Chi Minh City.

Fenced beaches

Loc also criticized current resorts, including around 120 of three stars and above, that were located too close to the shoreline, leaving no space for further development of the area.

He said Duong Dong Beach on Kien Giang Province's Phu Quoc Island was a good example, where many resort investors have fenced up the sandy beaches adjacent to their construction site to illegally prevent outside visitors.

Many tourism firms have also complained of little support from concerned agencies to promote new tourism products in coastal regions.

Lua Viet Tourism Company's new tours to several old lighthouses in provinces of Binh Thuan and Ba Ria-Vung Tau in 2006 were canceled before they begun. Company director Nguyen Van My said the lighthouses were ideal tourist destinations but he had not received any support from local authorities to promote tourism there.

The poor management of coastal resorts was also threatening the beaches with pollution. According to a recent study by the HCMC Institute of Environment and Resources, resorts and hotels in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province discharge an average of 1.3 million liters of untreated wastewater directly to the sea. Around ten tons of garbage are discharged into the sea every day in Khanh Hoa Province's premier beach resort town of Nha Trang.

Strange performances

Many experts said Vietnam's rich and diverse culture had not been properly reflected in entertainment programs offered to foreign visitors.

Several tours present folk performances to international tourists, including cai luong in the orchards of the Mekong Delta and quan ho on boats along the Hong (Red) River in the north. However, many tourism firms said their customers were unable to understand the shows as they were not given any information or translations.

Phan Xuan Anh, a consultant of Tan Hong Travel Company, said there should be a combination of different kinds of traditional performances to attract tourists.

Several experts lamented that there were no good traditional entertainment programs for foreign tourists, even though the country has different forms of music and performances, including four UNESCO World

Intangible Heritages: Nha nhac (Vietnamese court music), the Space of Gong Culture and quan ho and ca tru folk music.

Phan Dinh Hue, director of Vong Tron Viet Tourism Company in HCMC, said many tourism firms canceled a plan last year to hold such performances for foreign tourists at the city's Opera House because the rent was too high.

"Meanwhile, the Opera House has no regular program to serve tourists on weekends," he said.

Imported souvenirs

The poor choice of good local souvenirs has also led shops to import "Vietnam souvenirs" from abroad.

A shop selling handicrafts on HCMC's Pasteur Street said all their products were imported from China and Thailand. A small trader at Ben Thanh Market also said she was selling mostly souvenirs made in China.

Pham Xuan Du, director of Xuan Nam Tourism Company, estimated a foreign tourist spent $100 shopping in Vietnam while the amount was five times higher when they visited Thailand.

Unwelcome festivals

Vietnam has around 500 traditional festivals held nationwide every year, but they routinely fail to attract foreign tourists due to low quality services, many experts said.

Tourism firms said they couldn't promote festival tours to foreign tourists due to heavy traffic, lack of transport and low quality services.

'ECONOMIC CORRIDOR' OPENS FEW DOORS

Complicated procedures and unhealthy competition among local travel agencies are major hurdles to tourism development along the East West Economic Corridor (EWEC) through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, industry insiders have said.

Experts have said inefficient management and unhealthy competition along the 1,450- kilometer corridor, opened in 2006 with an investment of more than US$200 million, has hindered the tourism industry in Vietnam. The EWEC is a network of roads and infrastructure built to spur tourism and commercial investment in the Mekong region.

In 2009, only 240,322 visitors used the EWEC's Lao Bao Border Gate in Vietnam.

The director of a caravan tourism company in Da Nang said it took at least one week to complete procedures for a caravan tour from Thailand because the two countries drive on different sides of the road.

For vehicles from countries like Malaysia and Singapore, the firm has to ask for approval by the Prime Minister and several ministries, a procedure that can take over a month, he said.

Many tourism firms also said foreign travel companies have to wait for days at inspection points when they bring materials to Vietnam for presentation at tourism fairs. But these activities are much easier to organize in neighboring countries, said the director who requested anonymity.

An EWEC tour guide said immigration procedures for travelers in caravan tours had been simplified but there was no common form to facilitate the process in each of the involved countries.

He said each caravan tour had to wait much longer at Vietnam's Lao Bao and Cau Treo border gates than at others in Laos and Thailand.

Local firms also complained of unhealthy competition on the market.

Nguyen Son Thuy, director of Hoi An Travel Company, said a Thai tourist often buys a seven-day tour to Vietnam at a

Vietnamese travel agency in Bangkok for 9,900 Thai Baht ($300). However, he said one agency had lowered the rate to 8,900 Thai Baht ($269).

"It's a competition that will kill all [travel firms]," he said.

Vivalam Hoang, an overseas Vietnamese in Thailand who works as an EWEC tour guide, said the decrease in tour prices would lead to lower quality services and affect the prestige of local tourism firms.

Many experts also complained of the limited number of qualified tour guides that can speak Thai and other languages to guide the caravan tours.

They complained that there are no rest stops along a 300- kilometer stretch of the EWEC between the Lao Bao Border Gate and Da Nang and Hoi An.

Reported by Truong Dien Thang

Reported by Thanh Nien staff

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