Where have they gone? Vietnam's tourist numbers remain low as criticism mounts

Thanh Nien News

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Foreign tourists at an open-air restaurant in the ancient quarter of Hanoi. Photo: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP Foreign tourists at an open-air restaurant in the ancient quarter of Hanoi. Photo: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP

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The downward trend has continued.
Foreign arrivals to Vietnam reached only 626,000 in September, down 5.8 percent from August, new data from the National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) showed.
Even though that was up 8.3 percent from September last year, the overall number for the first nine months dropped 5.9 percent, to nearly 5.7 million. 
While some have blamed the downturn on difficult global economic conditions, media reports have pointed out that neighboring countries such as Thailand and Cambodia continue to post impressive arrival numbers. 
Thailand for instance received more than 20 million of foreign tourists in the first eight months. The country is well on its way to exceed its targets, with more than 30 million arrivals this year, despite a bomb blast that killed 14 foreigners last month in Bangkok, Reuters reported. 
Based on figures released by VNAT, the drop in tourism is largely attributed to Russians and Chinese keeping away. A weakening rubble has forced many Russian travelers to scale back while China's economic slowdown and its sovereignty tension with Vietnam may discourage Chinese tourists. 
But industry insiders say the problems with Vietnam's tourism sector actually come from within and run much deeper than that. 
One of the chronic issues is a lack of effective promotional campaigns to help revive travelers' interest. 
The foreign ministry earlier this month launched a new video to promote Vietnam’s tourism and investment opportunities in various languages. “Welcome to Vietnam” lasts more than seven minutes and features famous scenes captured by fly-cams.
The video, a rare promotional attempt by a government agency, has been praised by many industry insiders. But they say one video is simply not enough. 
Matthew Underwood, CEO of Ho Chi Minh City-based PR company Matterhorn Communications, told Tuoi Tre newspaper that the video has missed so many beautiful sights. 
He said that people in many countries still know about Vietnam as a country still recovering from the war and living on foreign aid.
Poor support
Vietnam is spending around US$1.5 million, or 0.2 percent of its annual tourism revenues, on promotional programs, which tourism companies say is too small a sum to bring about any real changes. 
Tuoi Tre cited an unnamed executive of an international tourism company operating in Vietnam as saying that it is receiving little support from the government despite the difficult time.
The executive said that after arrivals from its key market in Europe dropped sharply this year, it has been inviting reporters and tourism companies from other countries to visit and write about Vietnam.
However, major destinations and travel agencies in Vietnam have not supported this initiative and acted as if there were not a crisis, he said.  
Tourism operators, once again, also claimed that the recent visa waiver policy is a strong example of how Vietnam’s government is not very keen on supporting the industry.
The government has offered visa waivers to only a few countries and their nationals are only allowed to stay for 15 days. 
Travel companies said they have spent more than ten years campaigning for more favorable visa rules so that Vietnam can compete against Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, which all offer visa waivers to up to 100 countries.
They said Vietnam is late in the competition, and it has done a poor job in making them stay or come back.
Tuoi Tre reported that many first-time tourists said they would not return. Their common reasons are poor environment hygiene and public safety; unreasonable prices for several services such as street food and taxi; and boring destinations, which make the tours not worth it.

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