Never before have Vietnam’s top leadership stooped down like this to worry about the sagging tourism industry.
After signing off on visa waivers for five more European countries -- France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and the UK -- last month, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has continued to press ahead with the visa exemption.
In a directive dated July 2, Dung asked that ministries of finance, national defense, and public security consider axing tourist visa requirements for even more nationalities and continue streamlining visa procedures that have been decried as ineffective.
The document did not dwell on the specific nationalities. But government agencies and industry insiders have proposed that Dung add four more countries -- India, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand -- to the list.
The push for visa waivers comes at a time when the tourism crisis has continued to bedevil Vietnam.
The number of international arrivals has fallen for 13 months in a row in June, down 8.2 percent from May, according to the General Statistics Office. Around 3.8 million foreigners visited the country in the first half, a 11.3 percent drop from the same period last year.
Vietnam received a total of 7.87 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2014, according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. The country had aimed to draw up to 8.2 million international arrivals last year.
Experts say although the visa exemption is a right move to pull in tourists, the policy alone is not enough to resuscitate the ailing tourism sector.
“The problem with Vietnam tourism goes deeper than that,” Tim Doling, a British author who has studied extensively about Vietnam’s history and tourism, told Thanh Nien News.
In what appeared to be a rare move, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam has admitted that unsafe traffic, dirty food and environment, thieves, beggars, and overcharging by vendors have been a drag on the tourism industry.
Such bugbears have scared away foreign tourists, Dam told the press on the sidelines of the biannual parliamentary meeting in Hanoi last month.
In the July 2 directive, PM Dung also asked agencies concerned to tackle all those issues.
But the long list of tourism woes does not seem to end there.
“Vietnam is not protecting its tourism resources, nor is it optimizing their use,” Doling said.
“Everywhere we see the same story being reported in the press of beaches and other scenic areas strewn with rubbish or marred by failed developments, natural wonders threatened by commercialization and inappropriate construction.”
Grow first, preserve later
Tourists travel on a bamboo boat at the Van Long natural reserve, Vietnam's largest natural reserve of wetland, in Ninh Binh province, May 13, 2015. Photo: Reuters
Recently, a cable car project to Son Doong, the world’s largest cave in the north-central province of Quang Binh, raised many eyebrows over its raison d’être.
It was only until last month that the government put the infamous project on the back burner, at least until 2030, after it faced fierce opposition from civil society, conversation groups and tourists.
Several years ago, the idea of building a casino on Dong Van Plateau in the northern mountainous province of Ha Giang too drew flak from conservationists. The naysayers then said if built, the casino would destroy the plateau, named a "global geological park" in 2010 as a hub of ethnic culture and a place where the geological history of the formation and development of the Earth can be easily retraced. The project has stalled since.
Local leaders of both Quang Binh and Ha Giang, when defending their controversial projects, touted them all as a silver bullet that could lift locals out of utter poverty.
But critics do not buy into this.
They point the fingers to the headlong rush for massive infrastructure projects at the expense of natural wonders, a bandwagon which has apparently intensified in a country where local leaders are judged only by short-term performance.
Vietnamese cities and provinces often compete with each another by building airports, seaports or golf courses, leading to a glut of infrastructure projects which only helped to boost local gross domestic product figures thanks to construction, infrastructure, money flows through banks and new employment in the short run.
“Vietnam seems to have this deep insecurity that its natural beauty and scenic landscapes are not enough -- they must be ‘improved’ with cable cars, casinos, or loud karaoke,” said Pamela McElwee, an assistant professor of human ecology at Rutgers University who has extensively researched Vietnam's protected areas.
Vietnam seems to have this deep insecurity that its natural beauty and scenic landscapes are not enough." - Pamela McElwee, Rutgers University
"It’s a real shame," she said.
But “worst of all is the systematic destruction of the country's unique built heritage, the very thing which makes Vietnam’s towns and cities interesting to many foreign visitors,” Doling, the British historian, said.
He recalled that a few months ago, a deputy director of one of the biggest hotels in Ho Chi Minh said to him there was “nothing to see or do here.”
“I was simply astounded by this statement, in fact the city has an enormous amount of built heritage with interesting stories to tell,” Doling said.
“The problem is that in the absence of any kind of inventory of historic buildings or protection, this built heritage – which should be at the center of any tourism development initiative – is being systematically destroyed.”
A number of old French-style buildings across Ho Chi Minh City have been knocked down as the municipal government gives profit-driven developers the go-ahead to build new high rises in the name of modernization.
Experts point to research elsewhere in the world that has shown very clearly that heritage tourism generally attracts older, wealthier people who stay longer, take part in more cultural activities and spend more money.
“Yet Vietnam seems to be doing very little to promote this important end of the market, instead it seems willing to permit the complete destruction of what's left of the very built heritage which attracts such visitors,” Doling said.