Foreign tourists keep flocking to Vietnam, but whether they come back is another story

Poor promotions, unfriendly visa policy and dizzying development at the expense of natural attractions are turning visitors away.

In 2015, Tim Doling, a British author who has studied Vietnam’s history and tourism extensively, said he was left “simply astounded” when the vice director of one of the biggest hotels in Saigon told him there was “nothing to see or do here.”

At a conference held in Saigon in April, tourism experts and insiders lamented that it remained extremely difficult to keep visitors here for more than three days. Nguyen Thi Khanh, the vice chair of the Ho Chi Minh City Tourism Association, said many tourists wanted to leave the city of 12 million after just one day.

At another conference on tourism last month, delegates yet again blamed the dearth of original pull factors and Vietnam’s failure to promote its unique characteristics for the low rate of repeat visitors.

These warnings, which are far from new, come at a time when Vietnam’s tourism sector is showing signs of bouncing back from a crisis that sent its number of international arrivals plummeting in 2015.

With 8.5 million foreigners visiting the country in the first eight months, Vietnam has set a target of luring 11.5 million international arrivals by the end of this year, up 15 percent from 2016. The country ranked 67th among 136 economies in the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2017, putting it among the 10 most-improved since 2015.

But “the overall problem with Vietnam is ‘return visitors’,” Carl Robinson, a former American war correspondent who used to lead tours in Vietnam, told VnExpress International. “People come once, tick it off their list and then don't come back again.” 

According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, the number of return international visitors stood at around 33 percent. But last year, the Pacific Asia Travel Association, a non-profit group, estimated that only 6 percent of first-time visitors to Vietnam ever return.

“In fact I personally believe the actual return rate for tourists (excluding business travelers) is actually lower than the [official figures] quoted, as some reports record return tourists at less than 10 percent,” said Kenneth Atkinson, vice chairman of the Vietnam Tourism Advisory Board, a collection of industry stakeholders, including major tour operators and hotel and resort brands.

To put things in perspective, around 60 to 70 percent of travelers to Thailand, which received a record 33 million international arrivals in 2016, are repeat visitors. The return rate is also around 60 percent in Singapore, which was visited by 16.4 million foreigners last year.

Vietnamese tourism officials have admitted that the country has not done a good job of promoting itself abroad largely due to a lack of funds for advertising. According to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, the annual budget for tourism promotion is only $2 million, which pales in comparison with its neighbors. That amount is about 2.9 percent of Thailand’s tourism promotion budget, 2.5 percent of Singapore’s and 1.9 percent of Malaysia’s.

In a move that has been welcomed by insiders, Vietnam plans to increase its tourism promotion fund to VND120 billion ($5.3 million). But still, one of the country's biggest problems is that “different local agencies rarely work together to promote the country as a single destination,” the Economist Intelligence Unit said in a report last year.

 “Some of this is attributable to a culture of regionalism that still influences many aspects of daily life,” the report said. “Tourism officials in Hanoi, for example, might not necessarily go out of their way to promote Ho Chi Minh City.”

Insiders also point out that while tourism officials have come up with a slogan and keep track of statistics, the industry - both local and foreign operators - are the ones doing the publicity and, again, they are promoting more or less the same itineraries. 

“The biggest complaint is how the Vietnamese tourism industry focuses too much on the Five H's - plus S for Sa Pa - which are overcrowded now and have lost their ambiance and charm,” Robinson said, referring to Vietnam’s five most touristy destinations, namely Hanoi, Ha Long, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City.

“Why aren't tourists visiting other more off-the-map places where they can still experience the 'real' Vietnam? Most people are satisfied with doing the same-same as everybody else and where they are basically hanging with other tourists in bars and restaurants,” he said.

“The only Vietnamese they meet are in many ways are the hustlers and hasslers. It makes a bad impression and no wonder people don't come back.”

Foreign tourists bargain with cyclo drivers in Hanoi downtown. Photo by AFP

Unfriendly visa policy

At a national conference on tourism last year, Deputy Prime Minister Vuong Dinh Hue blamed robberies, unsafe roads, traffic congestion, service quality, filthy toilets and environmental pollution for hampering tourism. Experts and tour operators have also weighed in, asking the government to make Vietnam safer, cleaner and easier to visit.

The country’s visa policy has long been considered cumbersome and not tourism-friendly. In June, the government extended its visa-waiver scheme for visitors from five European countries - France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K. - by another year. But the decision came much to the chagrin of industry groups that have been lobbying for the inclusion of more foreign travelers, including those from key markets such as Australia, Canada and India.

The country has set a target of welcoming 20 million foreign visitors in 2020 and developing tourism into a key economic sector. According to industry groups, one way of achieving that goal is to offer visa waivers for important markets. 

But little headway has been made in this regard. Despite an e-visa system launched last February, Vietnam has waived visas for citizens of around 20 countries, far lower than its neighbors.

“This matter is clearly very complex as it involves different ministries whose interests are not always aligned,” said Atkinson, who is also chairman of consultancy firm Grant Thornton Vietnam.

To some, it may seem difficult to understand why Vietnamese authorities have not bought into the idea that visa waivers are likely to boost tourism, especially considering the evidence available in neighboring countries.

But to many others, the reason is pretty clear.

"I think there are too many vested interests; too many [people] making too much money for them to turn off this lucrative revenue stream," said Nguyen Van My, a seasoned expert who chairs a tourism company in Ho Chi Minh City.

"Money talks, but it is killing the industry," My said.

Dizzying commercialization

Visitors enamored by the country sometimes return to find rapid modernization has unleashed forces both good and not so good. 

Story after story in the press has featured beaches and other scenic areas strewn with rubbish or marred by failed developments, and natural wonders threatened by commercialization and inappropriate construction.

“The degradation of heritage assets poses a risk to a lucrative existing tourism market and the future development of mid and high value tourism,” the Vietnam Business Forum, a consortium of international and local business associations and chambers of commerce, said in a report in June. “Overdevelopment and excessive land use for hotel construction, especially along the coast, are damaging the environment and heavily reliant on limited resources,” it said.

Recently, plans for a cable car in Vietnam’s UNESCO-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park have raised widespread eyebrows over its raison d’être. It has also left conservationists questioning whether so-far elusive authorities will give the go-ahead for a highly-contested plan to build another cable car into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave near the Laos-Vietnam border, which many believe would be a disaster.

Elsewhere, vehement protests a few years ago led by conservation groups and even government ministries forced authorities in Ha Giang Province to scrap a plan to build a casino on Dong Van Plateau, the home of many ethnic minority groups which was named a global geological park in 2010. Conservationists also lament that poorly planned construction of hydropower plants and coastal resorts is aggravating erosion in Hoi An, a UNESCO heritage site and one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam.

There was a plan to build a casino here on Dong Van Karst Plateau, Ha Giang Province. Photo by VnExpress Photo Contest/Tran Binh An

Meanwhile in Saigon, the city “has an enormous amount of built heritage with interesting stories to tell,” Doling, the British historian, said. “The problem is that in the absence of any kind of inventory of historic buildings or protection, this built heritage – which should be at the center of any tourism development initiative – is being systematically destroyed.”

Once regarded as the “Paris of the East”, the city’s colonial architecture is quickly being erased by a development boom that favors high-rise, luxury buildings. Over the past two decades, over half of all pre-1975 villas have been demolished or defaced in the downtown area, according to the Urban Development Management Support Center.

Many of the old buildings which have already been destroyed, some dating back to the 19th century, were privately owned. At the moment there is no official recognition of the heritage value of such buildings, much less a mechanism to protect them.

In a city that has been lauded as a place where old meets new, locals are scrambling to document the town’s rapidly vanishing colonial architecture and cultural heritage.

"Saigon's stock of real heritage buildings is fairly modest - especially after recent demolitions,” said Mark Bowyer, a tourism expert who runs the website “Great world cities create a balance between old and new that Saigon has so far neglected," he said. 

"The heritage buildings have already been crowded out.  Time is definitely running out for Saigon to achieve a better balance." 

Experts point to research elsewhere in the world that has shown very clearly that heritage tourism generally attracts older, wealthier people who stay longer, take part in more cultural activities and spend more money.

“Yet Vietnam seems to be doing very little to promote this important end of the market,” Doling said. “Instead it seems willing to permit the complete destruction of what's left of the very built heritage which attracts such visitors.”

Story by Dien Luong

Chart by Ha Phuong

By Dien Luong