Laid low by pandemic, tourism workers down but not out

By Long Nguyen   April 1, 2021 | 04:30 pm PT
Tourism sector dependents have had to undergo the tribulations of survival amid Covid-19 impacts, but many remain doggedly optimistic about the future.

Le Trung Truc, a resident of the ancient town of Hoi An, begins his day by walking from home to his boat docked on the banks of the Hoai River.

He sits in the boat, adorned with lanterns and other colorful decorations, for some time. Then he gets out and walks around, asking some tourists, mostly Vietnamese, if they want a boat ride.

But there are no takers. The Nguyen Thai Hoc Street is quiet, with many shops closed. A few cafes have a few customers, but all Truc gets is head shakes saying no.

"If the pandemic was not here, it would be the high season, and tourists from around the world would come to Hoi An," said Truc, 43, standing on the deserted street.

Truc is among millions of people in Vietnam who have been hit hard by the collapse of the tourism industry in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and cancellation of all international flights.

A street in Hoi An is left deserted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, July 2020. Photo by Do Anh Vu.

A street in Hoi An is left deserted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, July 2020. Photo by Do Anh Vu.

While domestic tourism has picked up somewhat, it is nowhere near pre-pandemic numbers. Businesses and services that relied mostly on foreign tourists have been hit hardest, and many have closed down all over the country.

The number of foreign visitors to Vietnam in the first quarter fell 98.7 percent year-on-year to 48,000, according to the General Statistics Office (GSO).

The government closed national borders and canceled all international flights on March 25, 2020 with only Vietnamese repatriates, foreign experts and highly-skilled workers allowed in with stringent conditions.

As a result, millions of people, including industry staff, shops, vendors, drivers, cooks, cleaners, boatmen and boatwomen have seen their incomes drop drastically for months.

In Hoi An, one of the most popular tourism magnets in the country, many hotels, stores, and restaurants have shut down, leaving workers in the lurch.

Truc used to make up to VND1.2 million ($52.20) per day during peak season. Now he earns next to nothing.

"From around 15 customers per day, I have only one or two or none, even after I have cut my charges by 50 percent," he said while pointing at hundreds of empty boats docked on the banks of the popular Hoai River.

Many others people are less lucky, losing their livelihoods. According to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, 60 percent of workers in the tourism industry lost their jobs after 90 percent of international tourist agencies closed down, and lodging facilities are only using 10-15 percent of their capacity.

Survival strategies

With no foreign customers, Nguyen Thanh Binh and his wife, Hanoi-based tour operators, lost their jobs in a mass layoff last summer.

"It has been an atrocious year. I suddenly found myself with nothing to do. I was shocked and felt useless," said Binh, 38.

Consulting his diary, he said he organized more than 200 tours for international travelers in 2019, "but in 2020, the number was 18, and zero in 2021."

He had to sell his car to pay his children’s tuition fees and meet other living costs.

"But it is not only about our incomes, but also about our mental well-being. We have been asking and looking around for a new means of income to sustain our life. We cannot stand doing nothing all day."

Boatman Truc (L) and his son have their first customer of the day on late Sunday, March 28, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Long Nguyen.

Boatman Truc (L) and his son have their first customer of the day on late Sunday, March 28, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Long Nguyen.

Their lives upended, many workers have taken on other work to survive the tough times.

In Hoi An, Truc sometimes works as a construction worker when locals need to rebuild their houses, while his wife, who normally helps him find patrons, stays at home to make paper lanterns for their boat and others.

"Domestic tourists have returned, but the number of trips we get is not enough for making ends meet, so I must work many jobs at the same time," Truc said.

Truc had abandoned his trade as a fisherman four years ago. He gave up his fishing boat and spent VND40 million ($1,739) making a new one to join the tourism industry. Now, without a fishing boat, he cannot return to the seas.

"We are resourceful, but overcoming this upheaval is something we cannot be sure of at the moment," he said.

In Hanoi, Binh and his wife, after months of looking for a new job, have started to make and sell steamed buns.

"It is not easy to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Covid-19 pandemic is still here, so we have to create the light ourselves," Binh said.

Every day, he and his wife make around 200 buns for their online patrons, earning around VND800,000 ($34.80).

Some other travel workers, unable to find new work, have been using up their hard-earned savings, and sheltering with families and relatives from the Covid-19 storm.

Le Thi Ngo, a 49-year-old housekeeper in Da Nang, lost her job immediately after the outbreak hit the city last July.

She has spent months trying to find a new job, "but no one wants to hire an old woman when they have to tighten their belts."

"I am lucky as I have my sons and some unemployment benefits, but I am desperate to get back to work when this ordeal is over, I want to be of use," she said, adding becoming a burden for her children breaks her heart.

With vaccinations launched in many countries including Vietnam, the tourism dependents are seeing faint glimmers of hope.

"People love Vietnam, and they will return when the pandemic is contained, so I will wait for the recovery," said Binh.

Last month, the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism said it was working with relevant agencies on a proposal to welcome vaccinated foreign tourists. Experts have suggested that the government considers opening up to vaccinated foreign visitors from the third quarter, as some regional peers have done, to revive the tourism industry.

Despite the fears and worries, people like Truc, Binh, and Ngo remain optimistic.

Boatman Truc smiled broadly late Sunday afternoon as he got his first customer of the day.

"I have hope that tourists will start coming this year. Things will not be the same, but my hope remains in this tourism industry. Life will go back to what it was."

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