Tourists of the Queen Victoria cruise liner arrive at the SPCT port in Ho Chi Minh City last year. Photo: Nguyen Long
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has demanded that the process of obtaining a tourist visa be made cheaper and simpler for the country's growing group of cruise passengers.
The government website published PM Dung's statement late on Saturday.
In it, he asked that the visa fee for cruise tourists remain at US$5—the fee that was in place before January 1 when the new Law on Entry, Exit, Transit, and Residence of Foreigners went into effect.
The new law charged cruise passengers $45 each to enter the country.
Dung has directed the Ministry of Finance and relevant organs to quickly amend regulations on visa fees to make them easier and cheaper to obtain.
He also told the Ministry of Public Security to work with concerned agencies to issue separate visas to be tacked into the passports of tourists at cruise ports.
Under the new law, cruise passengers have to apply for individual shore visas instead of buying into group visas once offered to each vessel. Tour operators bristled at the regulation, saying it would only discourage tourists.
Given that the average ship carries 2,000 plus passengers, “I don't see the new policy as enticing passengers or cruise lines to make Vietnam a 'must see' destination. Vietnam is making it hard for people to get off the ship and spend money here,” said David Watson, general director of Industry Travel Asia, a HCMC-based Passenger Service Agency for Costa Cruise lines for Indochina.
“It is not the ship's 'duty' to fill out forms for its passengers, so this becomes an issue for agents worldwide, and most will just say 'avoid that cruise; It is too hard to get a visa,” Watson told Thanh Nien News.
It took the Tan Hong Company, a HCMC-based tour operator, almost eight hours early this month to complete all the new visa application procedures for their passengers.
Because the visas are normally printed directly on the passports, it will take a lot of time for tour operators to wait for the cruise liners to dock and process the visa application for each tourist.
An avalanche of complaints from cruise tour operators prompted Deputy PM Vu Duc Dam to call a meeting with them and tourism experts on January 8, where he promised to address their concerns.
Now that a separate visa can individually be tacked into each passenger's passport, experts are hoping tour operators will be able to speed up that process by allowing the cruise companies more time to fill out their forms before a ship docks in Vietnam.
By and large, however, “such requirements are a retrograde step as they discourage cruise passengers from taking shore trips,” said Kenneth Atkinson, chairman of the Vietnam Business Forum’s Tourism Working Group. “Valuable dollars are lost, meaning the government benefits to the detriment of businesses serving the tourist industry.”
Atkinson called the new policy “very short-sighted.”
The new rules came at a time when Vietnam is looking to expand its list of visa waiver countries in a bid to boost the tourism sector.
Last December, PM Dung asked Vietnam's tourism bureaucracy to consider waiving visas for more nationalities after continuing waiving 15-day single-entry visas to Danish, Finnish, Japanese, Norwegian, Russian, South Korean, and Swedish nationals.
Vietnam received a total of 7.87 million foreign tourist arrivals by the end of last year--up 4 percent from 2013--according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. The country aims to draw up to 8.2 million international arrivals by the end of last year. According to the agency, around 47,500 cruise passengers visited Vietnam last year, a 24.6 percent increase from 2013.
International Enterprise Singapore, a trade promotion agency based in the namesake city state, released a report last September that pointed out Vietnam’s 3,000km coastline makes it an ideal place for a major cruise industry, particularly in places like Da Nang, Nha Trang and Phu Quoc,
“Geographically, Vietnam is strategically located between regional homeports of Singapore and Hong Kong and hence vital for any Asia cruise itinerary,” it said.
Even though cruise tourism has remained a niche market in Vietnam, what apparently worries experts and tour operators most is that the new rule on cruise tourists are emblematic of the country's past failures to act on rhetoric about simplifying visa procedures.
Given that, proponents of simplified visa requirements for cruise tourists in particular and foreign travelers in general are anxiously awaiting the implementation of the prime minister's directive.
“This matter is clearly very complex as it involves too many ministries whose interests are not always aligned,” Atkinson said.