March 15 seems so close and yet so far

March 6, 2022 | 06:36 pm PT
Pham Ha Businessman
Tour bookings are already coming to us from Europe, but some German tourists said they would love to visit Vietnam but are hesitant because visa guidelines are unclear.

After Vietnam's tourism industry essentially spent the last two years on ice, the announcement about reopening everything on Mar. 15 certainly brought smiles to our faces.

But we wonder if this joy could be taken away if the opening is delayed or if visa-free policies are no longer applicable.

We are still pretty much in the dark. The reopening date is nothing but a number on paper, and we don't dare to invest more or confirm things with our partners out of fear things could change.

This uncertainty is detrimental to the reputation of both travel firms and Vietnamese tourism in general.

Experts target around five million foreign visitors this year. Compared to the 18 million in 2019, the year before the coronavirus appeared, five million seems like a modest goal. But given the global context, with an ongoing pandemic and a war between Russia and Ukraine, five million will be a tough nut to crack.

Tourism markets around the world have shrunk considerably in recent years. Stringent coronavirus restrictions, especially in Northeast Asia, make it difficult for tourists from there to come. Southeast Asia is a bit better in terms of the number of visitors, but their spending is not very high. That leaves only markets like Europe, America and Australia, but their tourists are hard to please. With an ongoing war in their backyard, who would want to travel anyway?

In order to attract visitors and recover, the tourism industry needs to have more direct, more effective approaches to access markets.

Travel plans should be more targeted and not generalized, for example by capitalizing on summer. With good products, good sales pitches and friendly visa policies, our chance to compete would rise dramatically, especially by attracting high rollers to locations like Phu Quoc, Quy Nhon and Pu Luong.

Vietnam should also focus more on quality instead of quantity, given that many travel firms have gone bankrupt due to the pandemic. We do not have enough personnel available to serve large numbers of tourists immediately anyway.

Another important factor is the cooperation between various entities like the government, travel agencies, airlines, restaurants, and other service providers to revive the tourism sector.

By sitting down together to think things through, appropriate travel packages to attract customers could be created.

As someone who has worked in the industry for decades, I can say that visitors will not flock to Vietnam right after reopening.

In the short term, we should focus more on markets with strong and stable recovery potential instead of spreading ourselves too thin.

Speed is everything. We already lag behind regional competitors like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, and there are still challenges ahead of us.

In the long run we will need to look back and resolve long-standing issues such as staff shortage, policies and marketing. Visa policies need to be more friendly, with provisions like longer stay for foreign visitors.

Our tourism industry is in need of a serious makeover. We must tweak our thinking and rebrand ourselves, figuring out what makes us an ideal destination in the first place.

The government should have a separate unit to concentrate on socio-economic recovery, including tourism, which contributes around 10 percent of our GDP.

The clock is ticking. There is no time to lose.

*Pham Ha is the CEO of Lux Group, a tour operator based in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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