Planning Developments for Vietnam Tourism

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Twelve years ago, when I landed in Vietnam, my professional aim was to continue as a tourism consultant for an agency. Before then, my focus in the industry had been on sustainability and marketing master plans for the tourism sector and/or destinations. Surprisingly, there are still no consultancy agencies specialising in destination management in Vietnam and the question of sustainability remains on the forefront.

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When asked to define What key actions and/or policies to put forward for Vietnam to sustain its current tourism growth?”, I enthusiastically jumped in. To do so, I combined my professional experience with the vast feedback received from 16 travel experts and ambassadors for Vietnam.

Some of them recommended a partial or even a complete removal of visas to boost arrivals and the expansion of mass tourism, which would be excellent business for most transportation providers and hoteliers. But, the direct and/or indirect impacts of the influx of these meager spenderson the destinations’ economy, infrastructure, heritage, culture, environment and societies has rarely proven to be constructive.

The actual financial returns of mass tourism speak for themselves: would you rather receive 40 millions tourists who each spend an average of 400 USD locally over 5 days, or 12 millions travellers who spend on average 2000+ USD over 12 days? Apart from the math, there are plenty of benefits associated with fewer visitors who stay longer and who spend significantly more.

As one of our Phan Thiet experts stated, “lets focus on quality instead of quantity. The huge numbers of North Asian and Russian visitors to Vietnam often bring too few benefits for local communities. They actually push back some of the more cultured (meaning better behaved and potentially better spending) visitors who will stay away from any destinations subject to the influx of these masses.”

In line with this recommendation is the proposition made by Ary Arbani, Director of Sales and Marketing for Six Senses to “Get rid of the 15-day “enter without visa” limit for travelers from five European countries only, and extend it to all EU members (plus Norway and Switzerland) for at least 30 days, and extend this visa waiver to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US. It would increase the number of visitors in prefered markets, the total generated revenues per head and the overall length of stay, especially for visitors coming from long-haul destinations.”

Those interested in growth only, should rest assured; tourism in Vietnam as well as mass tourism still have a long way to go.

Now that you know why it does make sense to focus on quality vs quantity, let’s try to explain what a sustainable tourism development framework is about. And to do so, I’ll share with you some key ideas from my interview with Matt Millard, director of Purple Asia, who believes we should aim to make Vietnam a world leader in the following areas.

Cultural and Social Sustainability

To do so, it’s necessary to retain the cultural authenticity of our towns, cities and rural areas at all costs. Restrict development in any area which is of cultural significance and manage the throughflow of tourists to such areas. Reattach, adapt, implement and innovate global best practices in the preservation of cultural heritage, especially for communities and ethnic people at risk of losing their culture at the hands of tourism. Create more museums, art galleries, natural areas, and public spaces of higher quality. Strictly enforce design rules in all areas where the built environment affects the existing cultural heritage (i.e. EVERYWHERE!).

And last but not least, to interject into Matt Millard’s suggestions, I personally feel it is important to continue to boost Vietnamese cuisine as an essential part of the travel experience.

vietnam tourismImage source: Mervin Lee

Environmental Sustainability

Immediately and forcefully introduce laws and practices to manage the preservation of the environment in all new and existing developments. Place stringent requirements on the private sector and on local community leadership to reduce energy use. Use clean energy, recycle all waste, process and dispose of effluent correctly and manage waste responsibly, not just within their own properties but within the communities where they operate.

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Create and manage a national program with satellite branches in all provinces to reduce plastic waste immediately (especially single-use). Create more marine national parks, wildlife reserves, pedestrian and cycle zones, and protected forests of better quality.. Stop the over-exploitation of some destinations and implement controlled development policies in line with the destination’s carrying capacities.

Economic Sustainability

Create and adhere to properly zoned masterplans ensuring that the right mix of products and services are created for the future. Reduce room numbers and building density where appropriate and make it compulsory for developers to contribute to the creation and preservation of natural resources and public areas within their development zone.

Excellence in Hospitality

Create government funded (or PPP, Public-Private Partnership) initiatives designed to improve the quality of human resources, built environments, entertainment facilities, transportation infrastructure and service and national civic pride to create better travel experiences for visitors to Vietnam. Properly funded global destination marketing, Innovation in visa regulation and removal of barriers to entry, increased security for tourists in crime hotspots, etc.

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Obviously, these above categories and listed opportunities are vast, ambitious and attractive ideas. What would it take to deliver these sustainable tourism development objectives by order of importance?

Improved Governance and Finance

John Tue, CEO of Trails of Indochina, recommended wisely to create an independent tourism development and promotion organisation confinanced by the travel industry (private sector) and the administration. The fund could be allocated by the relevant ministry(ies), the tourism visas revenues, a new tax raised on all room bookings per night at 3 to 5 star hotels across Vietnam, and a noticeable contribution made by each participating province. The later is essential for cohesive and effective coordinated works at the local and national level. Obviously, the total allocated budget should be in line with the long list of goals.

Actionable Planning and Marketing

Once in place, this new organisation would begin with a vast research initiative so that it could begin to define its long term goals (40 to 50 years) as well as its attached 5-10 years implementation strategy. A well designed marketing plan would be included, and would need to be elaborated upon in collaboration with the relevant local and international tourism stakeholders. Findings may include the setup of Vietnamese tourism boards worldwide, increased sales and marketing activities, participation in trade shows, networking events, roadshows, media, PR and further promotional activities.

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Other recommendations may contain the organisation of large international events within Vietnam to increase worldwide visibility and awareness, intensify focus on Vietnamese cuisine, better market segmentation and diversification, build-up of qualitative content and informations solutions before and after arrival, use of existing digital and marketing solutions to better promote the destination services and to engage with current visitors or those who are still considering Vietnam. All of that and more, so that we may raise Vietnam’s image, attractiveness and recognition worldwide.

Better Educational Systems

The youth in both cities and in rural areas should have opportunities to learn how to speak more foreign languages, and not only English. Fortunately, this objective is in line with the current educational goals set by the ministry. As recently reported, results are below expectations, especially in remote locations where education is most needed and most lacking. Understanding others (foreign visitors) and improving verbal communications are a must to raise the quality of encounters, services and experiences that travellers seek. Furthermore, let’s educate the people nationwide about their history/ies.traditions/culture and teach them to be proud of it.

Increased Professional Training

Better training of human resources for the service sector is a must. The few existing hospitality schools cannot cope with the current pace of developments. A true “dual system” is recommended, where students can attend the school and at the same time work in the travel/hospitality/F&B sector. The curriculum of these schools should be standardized nationwide and incorporate suggestions from foreign hospitality schools and foreign managed five-star hotels and resorts. Ideally, stronger collaborations must be developed between some leading hospitality schools worldwide to raise the standards for many young professionals and to ensure that graduates of such schools meet the true demands of the industry.

vietnam tourismImage source: zadn.vn

Support for Preservation and Maintenance

Preserving the historical structures, landmarks and attractions that remain is essential for the future of tourism in Vietnam. Singapore realized late that the preservation of historical buildings and its associated areas (Chinatown, for example) was an important part of making the destination attractive for visitors. To achieve this goal, creating an independent agency responsible for the conservation and maintenance of the country’s historical monuments, landmarks and attractions would make sense. Simply because too many historic monuments are falling apart or being renovated inappropriately. On the nature side of things, local governments and tourism professionals and officials must pay increased attention to the environment and pass effective laws against dumping garbage, especially in the ocean. This is where urgent concerted actions is necessary for controlling the current vast beach pollution we face.

Video source: City Pass Guide

Improved Infrastructures

Vietnam should invest in more and better airports, because many have reached their full capacity already. Mass public transportation (i.e. metro) will surely ease congestion in Saigon and Hanoi once completed. The limited and poor quality roads we use are still a major concern since it often takes too long to reach most destinations. Sidewalks clearance is another important issue affecting the travellers experience. If you can’t walk to discover a destination, how much fun would it be to visit it?

vietnam tourismImage source: citypassguide.com

Peter Gerhäuser, the GM of Pandanus Resort believes we should “.. strive to increase road safety, educate people to respect traffic rules, and invest furthermore in the railway system.” Steve Raymond also reported that further improvements must be made because “the electricity goes off constantly” in Phan Thiet. “Drainage on the roadsides are often missing and there is nowhere for the water to go to during a rain storm; it results in flooding.” Further works must be undertaken to improve access and amenities around museums, public attractions or landmarks, so that visitors can learn, interact and explore Vietnamese culture and history properly.

We could continue to cover many relevant subjects but I will conclude by saying the last critical issues that are much needed are improved statistical systems and data, so that we can effectively measure how tourism is being consumed in Vietnam. And the final and most important point, is about the Vietnamese people. They should be at the center of any successful strategy, simply because most of the population is hopeful, positive, kind, genuine and often open to differences. This alone makes Vietnam a very special place for most visitors to experience as they often miss out upon such essentials for well-being at home.

Video source: thế thắng lê

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