The tourists that may not return

December 26, 2022 | 03:39 pm PT
Vo Nhat Vinh Researcher
One late night in mid-December, my family and I returned to Vietnam to visit relatives after more than three years of separation due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The emotions surging inside me upon arriving at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, however, were quickly replaced by exhaustion and feelings of frustration. The luggage of our flight was scattered across the floor of the baggage area as the conveyor belt was too small to handle it all. After finding our suitcases, I had to haul each heavy piece of luggage on to the scanner, something I had never seen happen before at any other airport. One of the Westerners on our flight shook his head and sighed as he searched for his suitcases among the many pieces of luggage on the floor. He then also had to lug each piece to the scanner. I heard another person comment: "Oh, this airport is so basic."

People wait to collect their baggage at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in HCMC, January 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

People wait to collect their baggage at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in HCMC, January 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Such bad first impressions may explain why Vietnam's tourism has not recovered yet after reopening post-Covid.

According to official statistics, in the first 11 months of the year, Vietnam welcomed just 2.9 million international arrivals, and the country is projected to receive just 3.5 million by the end of the year, far below the target of five million set for 2022. Meanwhile, the expected foreign tourist arrival numbers for Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are expected to exceed 10 million, nine million and six million respectively, all far outstripping Vietnam.

So what do these numbers mean?

In 2019, Vietnam reached a record high number of more than 18 million foreign visitors, while Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore attracted 39 million, 26 million and 19.1 million international visitors respectively. Visitors from China accounted for 31.3% of international visitors to Vietnam, 27% to Thailand, 18% to Singapore and 11.8% to Malaysia.

This year, the number of international tourists has been on the decline across the world as a result of the global economic crisis caused by the pandemic and political conflicts. Additionally, tourism markets that normally receive large numbers of visitors from China were hit hard due to the country's prolonged "zero-Covid" policy. Among the top four Southeast Asian countries in terms of attracting international visitors, Vietnam was the hardest hit, with the number of foreign visitors decreasing by more than 5 times, while Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia's numbers declined by 3.9 times, 3.1 times and 2.9 times respectively.

According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), in 2019, which was the golden year of Vietnam's tourism, repeat visitors made up just over 10% of foreign arrivals to Vietnam, while the ratio for Thailand and Singapore was 82% and 89% respectively. These figures show that the number of international visitors to Vietnam grew at a slower rate and that arrivals were driven by the curiosity of first time visitors rather than visitors being "addicted" to returning to the country. When an economic crisis strikes, international travelers will cut back on spending but only to a certain extent, with travel for essential reasons, such as for work, or because of "addiction," will remain. Statistics show that Vietnam has weak competitiveness when it comes to attracting international tourists in times when the budgets of families across the globe are declining sharply.

Another problem is that Vietnam has also been overly dependent on tourists arriving from China. Throughout the years prior to the pandemic, the number of Chinese visitors to the country continuously increased, but Chinese visitors are not classified as heavy spenders when visiting Vietnam. Still, for the sake of short-term gains, tourism developers devoted a lot of resources to serving Chinese visitors instead of diversifying the market or focusing on markets that provided higher economic value. The decline in visitors from China is, in some aspects, an opportunity for the tourism industry to freshen up its facilities as well as develop programs to attract visitors from developed markets who spend more tourism dollars.

Furthermore, raising the percentage of international visitors returning to Vietnam will be an essential task since it is currently not feasible to constantly attract new international tourists. During the holiday season at the end of the year, many tourists from North America or Europe will look to the warm, sunny tropical regions to dodge the cold winters back home and Southeast Asian countries will be ideal destinations. However, a "basic" airport coupled with images of luggage scattered on the floor after a long and tiring flight will surely give visitors very negative first impressions.

An arrival hall that is beautifully designed, with a frequently refreshed yet uniquely Vietnamese appearance, could serve as a selfie corner for visitors, which will translate into free advertisements for Vietnam on social media platforms.

The screening of luggage just before the exit could be replaced by a system that automatically screens luggage as soon as it is placed on the conveyor belt. Such tiny things could help tourists feel much more at ease as they pass through immigration and get ready to spend money later.

The tourism industry contributes both directly and indirectly more than 10% of Vietnam's GDP. Therefore, the decrease in the number of international visitors to Vietnam has had a significant impact on the revenue of the economy.

While it is now late in the year, this is the moment for the tourism industry to clearly recognize its weaknesses and adjust its plans to attract more international visitors from a wider number of countries, especially from high-spending ones, instead of relying on just a few nearby markets.

*Vo Nhat Vinh is an R&D expert based in France.

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