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Vietnam’s tourism sector is booming. Yet to catch up with its near neighbours, much needs to be done.


By the time you read this, the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) will have announced its figures for 2017. Based on stats for the year up to November 2017, just short of 13 million tourists will have entered Vietnam in the last 12 months. That means that in five years, numbers have almost doubled. It’s an incredible change.


Yet, compared to neighbours like Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, Vietnam is playing catch-up. According to Euromonitor International, this year Singapore hit 17.6 million visitors. Hong Kong, the most visited city in the world, was up at 25.7 million, with Bangkok a close second at 23.3 million. Cities in Thailand such as Phuket (12.1 million) and Pattaya (7.3 million) were more successful in attracting foreign tourists than Ho Chi Minh City (5.5 million) and Hanoi (4.3 million).


Over 2 million jobs in Vietnam are connected to the tourism industry, and the industry accounts for 10% of the country’s total GDP. All making tourism vital to the economic health of Vietnam. Yet looking at the success of Vietnam’s neighbours it’s clear that this country can achieve much more.


Here are some ideas on what needs to be done to improve the figures.


1) Improve Road Travel


Substantial improvements have been made to this country’s roads. A number of expressways have been built, shortening travel times particularly to places like Sapa.


However, travel times remain slow and the roads are dangerous, making it difficult to link up with regional cities in Vietnam. This restricts the majority of tourism to the key hubs up and down Highway 1.


Thailand and Malaysia have dealt with this problem by improving their highways. Access between cities in both countries is now fast and hassle-free, opening up a number of new destinations to tourism.


The more options there are for tourists, the more likely they are to come back.


2) Ease visa restrictions


That small barrier to entering Vietnam can put people off, even if it only means paying US$45 to get across the border. So do the same as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore and give people from a wide range of nations 30-day visa free entry to Vietnam. The country will see an instant increase in visitors. Yes, a visa waiver is in the pipeline for tourists flying direct to Phu Quoc, but it’s not enough. Nor is the 15-day visa-free entry for nationals from countries like the UK, Russia and Germany. With only two weeks to spare, they skip out the minor destinations and spend less money in Vietnam.


3) Air travel


The present-day aviation sector in Vietnam is a success story. More international airlines are flying into Vietnam, the national carrier, Vietnam Airlines, is working hard to up its game, and budget carriers like VietJet Air and Jetstar are opening up new routes.


However, to really bring in the tourists, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi need to become regional flight hubs.


At present this is impossible due to airport capacity. Noi Bai in Hanoi is built to handle 25 million passengers; in 2016 it hit close to 21 million. In the same 12-month period, Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok was handling 56 million passengers while Hong Kong Airport was at 70.5 million. There’s no room for expansion.


Tan Son Nhat is presently operating over capacity, leading to huge queues and flight congestion. Fortunately, over the next seven or eight years, two new terminals will be added enabling the airport to increase its passenger capacity to 53 million. This will give Ho Chi Minh City the potential to become an international transport hub.


However, it’s not just capacity that’s important. More competition needs to be allowed in the aviation market, meaning more airlines operating domestic and international flights to and from Vietnam. And expensive flight routes from places like Hanoi to Vientiane and Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh need to be deregulated.


On this front, present changes augur well. In the last 12 months VietJet Air has opened up routes to Phnom Penh and Hong Kong, adding budget options to journeys that cost-wise have been prohibitive.


4) Reasons to Come


Forget the innuendos. The ‘Hidden Charm’ marketing of the past 15 years has served Vietnam well. By marketing Vietnam as a cultural destination with beautiful scenery, tourists come once, see, experience, do Vietnam and never come back. According to the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) in 2016, of the 90 percent of foreign visitors to Vietnam who are first-timers, only six percent visit again. Thailand’s return rate is 50 percent.


What Vietnam needs is a hook, something to make people return. Why do people travel to the Mediterranean, Bali, the Caribbean or Thailand for their holidays? It’s the holiday, beachside lifestyle. The parties, the food and drink, the sunsets, the quality of the facilities, the shopping. It’s all here, particularly in places like Hoi An, Nha Trang and Phu Quoc, but outside of Russia, South Korea and China, people overseas don’t really know about it.


The ‘Hidden Charm’ marketing is important, but so is lifestyle marketing. If the authorities can start pushing the lifestyle, then return rates will increase substantially.


5) Mon An Viet Nam


Anyone who’s travelled extensively in this region will tell you that in terms of street food, Vietnam is up there with Thailand and Malaysia. It’s cheap, it’s tasty, and if you know where to go, it’s hygienic, too.


Yes, service can sometimes be an issue — especially in terms of staff being able to explain what’s in a dish or a cocktail. But rarely do service staff give you surly looks or treat you with disdain; you’re far more likely to get a smile. And these days, rarely do you see restaurants serving up ‘hambuggers’ or ‘fried crap with noodle’.


Unfortunately, except for people like ourselves who always wax lyrical about this country’s cuisine, little effort is made to promote it as a reason to visit this country.


One of the pleasures of travelling to Vietnam is the food. Market the hell out of it!


6) Events and Business


How many people fly into Vietnam to, let’s say, run a marathon, or go and see an A-list singer or band perform to 50,000 people? Very few. Instead, they’ll fly to Singapore or Bangkok. Is there a Disneyland or a Universal Studios like there is in Hong Kong and Singapore? What about the Formula 1?


And what about work? How many multinationals use Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi for their main offices in Southeast Asia? Not many. Instead, as a way to live long-term in Vietnam, increasing numbers of expats are setting up their own businesses.


Make it easier for large foreign companies to set up and operate a business in Vietnam. Change the process for granting licenses for ‘cultural events’. Support more large-scale events like marathons and sporting competitions, and you have a knock-on effect on tourism. This also has an indirect effect on GDP.


This country has a lot going for it. Yet, to become one of the hottest tourist destinations in the region, Vietnam needs to make many changes. The more quality attractions this country has that can not only attract people in the first place, but keep them coming back, the better it will be for tourism, and more importantly, the economy of Vietnam.



Nick Ross

Chief editor and co-founder of Word Vietnam, Nick Ross was born in the humble city of London before moving to the less humble climes of Vietnam. His wanderings have taken him to definitely not enough corners of the globe, but being a constant optimist, he still has hopes.


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