The ASEAN Mutual Recognition Agreement on Tourism Professionals is unlikely to bring much change to Vietnam's tourism industry, which cannot attract foreign professionals or send its own workers abroad, insiders warn.
When the ASEAN agreement comes into effect in 2015, a person with a professional tourism certificate from one member country will be eligible to work in any other country.
But Vietnam's tourism industry, which faces a shortage of skilled workers, will find it hard to attract foreigners due to its low reputation, while their poor qualification will prevent Vietnamese professionals from working abroad, tourism industry people admit.
ASEAN has set up common competency standards for six out of 32 jobs that have been identified in the sector - receptionists, room service, kitchen, food and beverage services, travel agencies, and tour operators.
Under the agreement, member states will establish websites to provide updates on job vacancies in each country so that qualified people can apply for them.
Vietnam's tourism industry faces a serious shortage of senior employees like managers of hotels, resorts and restaurants. Most three-five star hotels need foreign managers since locals are not qualified enough to fill the positions, a representative of the Vietnam Tourism Association admitted.
"However, I don't think tourism workers from ASEAN countries will rush to Vietnam to look for jobs because our tourism has not yet a good reputation," he said.
"For the same salaries, employees would prefer working in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand."
Besides, information about Vietnam's regulations, working conditions, and tourism potential are not well promoted abroad, which will prevent the industry from attracting foreign workers, he said.
Echoing him, Nguyen Cong Hoan, deputy director of travel agent Hanoi Redtours, said the number of tourism workers from other ASEAN countries coming to Vietnam to seek jobs would be small, not enough to create competitive pressure in the local market.
In other countries, workers who can speak English and Chinese fluently can communicate with both foreign visitors and locals, but not in Vietnam, he said.
"This is one reason why foreign workers are not keen on the Vietnamese market."
Vietnamese employers prefer to hire locals for low-and medium-level jobs because they can pay lower salaries, he said.
For instance, a front-office manager in a five-star hotel gets paid around US$1,000, while someone from the Philippines or Indonesia has to be paid $1,500-2,000, he said.
According to figures from the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, around 1.5 million people work in the country's tourism sector.
To meet demand the number needs to almost double by 2015, when the country expects to get 7-7.5 million foreign and more than 36 million local visitors.
Difficult to work abroad
The agreement would provide an opportunity for Vietnamese tourism workers to get jobs in other ASEAN countries, especially in the context of more and more Vietnamese traveling overseas, Hoan said.
Every year some 3 million people go abroad, mainly to other ASEAN countries.
But it would not be easy unless Vietnamese workers are trained more in foreign language and soft skills like communication, teamwork, and problem solving, he said.
"I have not seen any preparations in terms of training for workers to enter ASEAN markets," he said.
But some other member countries like Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia are making solid preparations.
Do Thi Hong Xoan, chairwoman of the Vietnam Hotel Association, said: "Vietnamese tourism workers' qualifications are below international standards."
The curriculum in tourism schools focuses mainly on theory and not practice, textbooks are outdated, and students are not trained well in foreign language or soft skills, she said.
Most hotel and resort managers have not undergone tourism training but are graduates from economic universities, she added.
Surveys by some travel agents have found 30-45 percent of tourist guides and tour operators and 70-80 percent of receptionists at restaurants cannot speak foreign languages fluently, according to the Human Resource Forecast and Development Center of Ho Chi Minh City.
Unless Vietnam addresses the problems, it cannot attract foreign workers or send its own abroad to take advantage of the treaty, Xoan said.
Vietnam's tourism industry faces a labor shortage. It needs 40,000 new workers each year, but only 15,000 graduate from tourism schools, according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism.
Of them, only 12 percent have college and university degrees, it said.
But even tourism graduates find it hard to get jobs because of their poor qualification.
At a recent meeting on training human resources for hotels, attendees said hotel management graduates suffer from higher unemployment rates than those in some other sectors.
Most four- and five-star hotels prefer foreigners for manager's jobs.
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