Expat tour guides are becoming more numerous here in Vietnam, and some of the locals aren’t happy about it. One Vietnamese tour operator recently said, “The government cannot know what foreign tour guides are telling international tourists about Vietnam. It is totally possible that they cause misunderstandings about Vietnam’s culture, history and customs”. Thus betraying an all-too common misunderstanding of what tourism is really about.


As my friend, author and long-term Saigon expat Patrick Moran wrote to me last week, “It is not the job of foreign tourists to learn Vietnamese culture. They are on holiday. It is the job of the Vietnamese tourist industry to learn the culture of the foreign tourists, to find out what they want.” Try telling that to the tourism authorities here, for whom cultural tourism is the only game in town, and for whom market research is an alien concept. Look at Vietnam’s tourism marketing for example – turgid, uninspiring, and advertising little more than a boot camp in Vietnamese culture – and compare it to the exciting, colourful and fun approaches of Thailand and Malaysia.


Short Term Mentality


Going all out to attract cultural tourists is a dangerously short-term approach. Cultural tourists tend to only visit a destination once, cross it off their to-do list, and try another destination next time, and it’s one crucial factor in Vietnam’s desperately poor (around 5 percent) return visitor rate. It also encourages a short-term mentality in suppliers who cater to the tourism industry, such as taxi drivers, shop owners and hoteliers – where’s the harm in scamming a customer when they’re not going to come back anyway?


Thailand has built its highly successful tourism industry not just on cultural tourists, but also on holidaymakers – people who go on holiday primarily to relax, eat, drink, play sports, and generally have a good time. They will probably visit some cultural sites during their stay anyway but it’s not the primary aim of their trip. The important thing about this sector is that, when they find a destination they like, they will go back again and again, which helps explain Thailand’s return visitor rate of around 50 percent. Sadly the Vietnamese, who don’t understand how we strange foreigners could possibly enjoy lying on a beach reading a book and have no desire to find out, simply don’t recognise the existence of this market, and the changes that would be required in the country’s tourism industry to make it happen – better service levels, better infrastructure in beach areas, less scamming – are unlikely to occur for a generation at least.


To paraphrase a recent Economist article, Vietnam’s tourism industry has a bright future ahead of it…and it always will.

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