Meet the Expert: Steve Raymond on Phan Thiet
Steve Raymond has been in the tourism industry since 1972. He began his career in an incentive house for a salary of USD 50 per month. In 1977 Steve started a receptive company of his own in San Francisco. By ’84 it was one of the largest in the city.
In 1985 he went over to Southeast Asia, and began a destination management company in Thailand. He did this until his arrest in ’89. Steve remained in various Thai prisons for nearly two years, even after being acquitted of committing any crime. After sitting in a Thai immigration jail for over a year because his passport had been cancelled by the US Embassy when he was originally arrested, he was brought back to the states where a judge ordered his release, stating that “there is no evidence that a crime was committed” – Two years and two weeks after his original arrest. Published in 1994, the book titled “The Poison River” describes Steve’s travails for those two plus years.
The day he walked out of jail, he entered Mari Zatman’s office and she hired him on the spot. Mari had worked for Steve’s San Francisco-based company. After leaving his company, she started a hotel booking company – sort of like an online travel agency before the internet developed – where people called in or faxed in hotel reservation requests. In 1993, a close friend told Steve she was buying a hotel in San Francisco and wanted Steve to take helm as the project manager. Steve left the hotel booking company and went on as project manager and later general manager and director of sales and marketing for the Renoir Hotel throughout the ‘90s.
In 2000 Steve was hired by the Windsor group to manage two of their restaurants and open a third and to run the sales and marketing department for both the Windsor Saigon Hotel and the company’s various restaurants. In 2004, when the company opened the Windsor Plaza Hotel, Steve added a stint as the General Manager to his resume. At the same time, Steve was writing all the English copy and editing of all the English text for the company.
At the same time, Steve was also giving seminars on hotel marketing. A friend of the owner of the Pandanus Resort in Phan Thiet attended a seminar and then suggested that Steve help to turn around the struggling venture. When he went on a site inspection of the resort, he was offered the position of General Manager. Deciding that life in Phan Thiet would be less stressful than working at the Windsor group, he accepted the position. When he left the Windsor group, the company had to hire four people to do the various jobs he was doing.
Steve has been at Pandanus Resort for nearly a decade. Citypassguide.com sat down with Steve to help dissect the Phan Thiet market, and its tentative future.
[Interview responses are paraphrased by Citypassguide.com for the purposes of readability]
CPG.com: How much has the market changed since 2006?
Steve: There are three times as many establishments as there was when I arrived here. At that time, almost all of the development in Ham Tien was on the West end.
Rang Beach in Ham Tien was first discovered by many foreigners when they descended on the area on October 24, 1995 to watch a solar eclipse. Scientists had predicted that one of the best places in the world to see the total eclipse was on the beaches northeast of the city center. Guidebooks like the Lonely Planet directed would-be astronomers to the beach in front of Mui Ne, incorrectly referring to Ham Tien as ‘Mui Ne’ and Rang Beach as ‘Mui Ne Beach’. From that day onward, tourists mistakenly called everything east of the city center Mui Ne, so by the time I go here everything was being called Mui Ne.
The initial markets were mainly German, with a sizable French community and a fair amount of Australian and European kite surfers. The German market has stabilized, while other markets have continued to develop.
Right after the Middle Eastern revolution, the Russians started coming in. In 2011, Egypt was the most popular destination for Russians, but since the revolution they started pouring into Vietnam. After the drop of the ruble in 2014, some resorts lost up to 75% of their Russian market.
The Vietnamese market was always increasing, but it started to grow more substantially after the road project finished. Before that it took eight hours to get here – now it takes three and a half. I have never seen so many Vietnamese in the first four months of the year until this winter.
As for the Korean market, it’s up, but their idea of relaxation is not to sit on a beach and tan themselves. They only stay a few days. Part of the reason Koreans come here is to play golf. But since Rang Dong Corporation closed Ocean Dunes, there aren’t so many of them coming to golf. They liked having two golf courses to play on, rather than just one.
CPG.com: How do you see the market evolving in the near future?
Steve: We are focusing now on markets that weren’t primary. Our business with the Swiss has tripled, Denmark has tripled, the Finnish market has doubled. Now that the Brits have direct flights, they don’t have to jump through hoops to get here, so their business has grown.
Vietnamese hoteliers don’t want to talk to anybody about their figures. In all of Phan Thiet we only have 10 or 12 willing to disclose stats and some of those are questionable. I don’t trust the government figures, since they probably fudge them to look good with Hanoi. The only information I get is from foreign hoteliers. Compared to San Francisco, cooperation is almost nonexistent. It’s difficult to get proper stats.
As for Binh Thuan Tourism… it is ineffective, to say the least. They don’t know their head from their tail. They want to use the name Mui Ne because that’s the name tourists know, but what about other wards? Hotels there get upset that they’re giving out a CD ROM and book that says “Mui Ne”. You open the CD ROM, and the first thing it has is a map of Phan Thiet city. How stupid is that.
The Binh Thaun Tourism website is only in Vietnamese. It’s very poorly made. They never previously attended the ATF (ASEAN Tourism Forum). I think they just went this year for the first time. They have no idea how to promote tourism to Phan Thiet. Their idea of promotion was to run a couple of festivals during the year and they didn’t even know how to do that – remember the balloon festival a couple years ago? I was the only foreigner there.
CPG.com: There’s been a lot of noise about the Phan Thiet airport that is now being signed by the prime minister. Are they actually building it?
Steve: It is under construction. My farm is near there, and I see trucks going in and out. They’re working on something. At the same time, they’re sitting in Hanoi, arguing about whether or not they’re going to pay the money to build it.
They’re saying the money should be spent in other places.
CPG.com: And what’s your opinion on that?
Steve: First of all, if they’re going to build an airport, they should have used the old American military airport. The runway is there and everything. The reason they haven’t might be either the government officials don’t own the military airport, or they don’t own the land where they want to build it now [laughs].
Furthermore, the new Ho Chi Minh City airport is going to be built in Long Thanh, two and a half hours drive from the resorts in Phan Thiet. Who’s going to want to wait for a connection and then fly here, then take a taxi, when they can be in their resort in two and a half hours by taxi from the Ho Chi Minh City airport? I think someone’s making money by building the new airport here and not looking at whether it’s the smart thing to do or it is good for the country.
CPG.com: You are the TripAdvisor expert for the area of Phan Thiet. Can you tell us what you do for them?
Steve: Every day I respond to people on the forum. And basically that’s it. I answer all the people that are asking questions about the area, what to do, where to go – every question you can possibly imagine.
CPG.com: One of the key things you’ve been trying to convince the industry as a whole of is the proper geographic naming of the region. Can you expand on that?
Steve: The truth is before they built any resorts here, the first guidebook ever printed for the area, Lonely Planet, called the whole area Mui Ne. What is problematic is that it confuses the tourists. They have no idea where they’re staying. Phan Thiet covers 60 kilometers of coastline. Every area in that region has something different to offer. They should be identified as being in that specific area so that people know exactly what they’re getting into.
The tourism authorities only need to promote one brand name – Phan Thiet. Because it’s all Phan Thiet. I finally got TripAdvisor to recognize the different areas. If Binh Thuan Tourism did that, people would realize how much there is to do there. Then guests can say, “I prefer to be away from all the noise,” or “I prefer to be in the middle of all the action and noise.” You can have areas for retired people, younger generations, families, etc.
CPG.com: Regarding TripAdvisor, do you think there are rankings, presented in the Phan Thiet area, which are manipulated?
Steve: I think some of them are manipulated, but I have no proof. I also think a lot of the government statistics are not accurate. Living in Vietnam for 15 years, I’ve become very cynical about anything the government says or does. They often don’t do what they say they’re going to do, and if they do, they take forever doing it. I’m sure the figures of tourists coming into Vietnam are correct – they know how many people come through the airports.
That’s easier to quantify that than the number of people coming to Phan Thiet. It’s not just the government, but I don’t even trust some of those hotels that share their figures with us. We did a cross investigation and found that Allezboo and Saigon Mui Ne, for example, were fudging their figures. So how would Binh Thuan Tourism know how many people are coming in and what nationalities they are? The police collect passport information from the larger resorts, but not necessarily from small guest houses, and there are over a hundred of them, so I don’t think they have any idea.
CPG.com: We recently heard increasing reports that police are going after some of the expats that are living here and renting land. Is this accurate?
Steve: Many Vietnamese government officials are xenophobic. They don’t realize it, but they are. This comes from 10 centuries or more of being overrun by foreigners: Mongols, Chinese, Japanese, French, Americans… and their reflex is to be xenophobic. They have a tendency to really try to make it difficult for foreigners to stay here for any extended period of time. If they wanted foreigners to live here, they would welcome retirees, for example. They would welcome them with open arms. Retirees don’t take work from the locals. They only add to the economy. If they wanted foreigners to live here, they’d be doing what other countries like Thailand and Panama are doing: they would advertise that they want people to retire here.
CPG.com: You have an objective to retire here. What makes you stay?
Steve: I’ve invested in the country. I started a tofu business. The land is not in my name, but I’m listed as a foreign investor in the company, and so I can get a visa. They shouldn’t have to do that for retirees. They should want retirees to come here and bring their money and help the economy.
CPG.com: What is it, though, that made you invest in this country and call it home?
Steve: Various reasons. I love Vietnamese people. I love warm weather. And what can I say, I love Vietnamese guys!
Somebody told me to compare Vietnam to Thailand when I got here. When you’re in Thailand, you’re a foreigner; you’re a “farang.” You’re different. Thai people call each other ‘pi or nong’; brother or sister. But, if you’re a foreigner you’re always a farang.
Vietnamese view other Vietnamese as competitors, but foreigners are their friends. And that’s the way they treat us, and I love it. If the government would just have the same feeling towards foreigners that the people do, then it would be really good.
CPG.com: We know you’re sensitive to the issue of pollution. Can you tell us what is happening in the greater Phan Thiet area, in relation to this?
Steve: I see ten times as much trash in this area as I did in 2006. There is garbage everywhere. You drive through Mui Ne, and all empty lots are full of trash. When the new highway was first built, it was pristine. Now you drive along the new highway and there’s garbage everywhere you look.
The fishermen have no clue about what they’re doing to the environment by dumping their Styrofoam and their plastic and every piece of garbage overboard. It kills life in the sea and washes up on the shores. You go out to the public beaches and they’re disgusting. The tourists don’t want to come to a destination that’s full of garbage.
Photo by: Tuoi Tre News
You follow a bus from Saigon to Phan Thiet and you see candy wrappers, plastic cups, or plastic bags flying out of the windows. They don’t care where they are, they just drop garbage anywhere. If the police see you throwing garbage out of a moving vehicle in America, you have to pay a fine in the thousands of dollars.
The problem is that the government doesn’t even consider this to be a problem. If they did, they would make laws and fine people for dumping garbage and then tell the police to follow up. That would significantly reduce the amount of garbage. Protecting the environment is not a priority for the government.
CPG.com: Thank you Steve.