Saturday, October 06, 2007

Vietnamese tourists flock to US as travel gets easier

VietNamNet Bridge – More and more Vietnamese travellers are heading for the US, airline and travel companies are saying.

Posing stateside: The number of Vietnamese travellers visiting the US is increasing.
Posing stateside: The number of Vietnamese travellers visiting the US is increasing.
The American Airlines (AA) office in Hanoi says so far this year around 7,200 Vietnamese bought tickets to the US.

But the figure accounted for just 10% of the total number of tickets to the US sold by 18 airlines flying out of Vietnam, it says.

Its chief, Ngo Minh Duc, says business this year has been good even in September and October, normally a lean period for most airlines.

"By August, we sold 75% of the seats available in September and 60% in October without the aid of promotions," he adds.

Travel industry insiders estimate the increase in traffic to the US to be growing at 20 to 30% annually.

The HCM City-based Hoan My Tourism Company, one of the most experienced in organising tours to the US, says that the number of Vietnamese booking tours to the US has tripled this year.

Its director, Nguyen The Khai, says: "We have tours of the US almost every month." In the past, the company only had them once every few months.

"If US visa procedures are simpler, the number of Vietnamese visiting the country will be three times higher," he says.

Huynh Thu Dung, head of Vietravel's Press Office, says: "[We have] organised tours to the US since 1997. The number of customers has jumped by 30% annually in recent years."

Her company has taken at least 50 per month so far this year.

Tran Thuy Dung, deputy director of travel company Carnival, says: "In 2006 over 200 people registered for tours to the US. This year the figure will be much higher since demand for travel, overseas education and trade promotion has increased with the country's global economic integration." She is likely referring to Vietnam's accession to the World Trade Organisation this year.

In a survey of nearly 2,000 readers in HCM City by Sai Gon Giai Phong (Liberated Sai Gon) newspaper over 24% said they intended to visit the US whenever the opportunity arose. This compared with a similar number for Singapore and 16% for Hong Kong.

Explaining the boom

Experts attribute the travel boom to the US to sharply rising incomes in Vietnam and the easier availability of visas for Vietnamese.

The visa formalities remain complicated but things seem to be looking up. While in the past Vietnamese could only expect to get diplomatic or business visas to enter the US, it is now possible for them to get tourist visas, the experts say.

The tie-up between American Airlines and Vietnam Airlines is making travel to the US easier, they say.

Tours of Southeast Asian "countries, China, Japan, South Korea, and Europe are becoming less attractive to many Vietnamese, they say, while the US has become the exciting new land waiting to be discovered.

Many people go with tour companies but combine pleasure with attending conferences, exhibitions, fashion shows, and looking for business partners or schools for their children.

Many also visit relatives living in the US, using the organised tour as a pretext to make the visa process easier.

The Hoan My Travel Company found in a survey that 80% of the people registering for the tours have relatives in the US.

Nguyen Thuy Ha who works for the Vietnam Economics Times newspaper, is one of the tourists who joined a tour organised by the Hoan My company but also scouted around for education opportunities for her son.

Hoang Thi To Nga, who runs a construction materials shop in HCM City's District 7, booked Carnival's tour to the US last May.

"The objectives of my visit were to look for building materials to import from the US, and a good university for my eldest daughter. I spent US$3,000 for the tour and a similar amount on shopping."

"I plan to visit the US again this December to visit my daughter who is now studying in New Jersey."

Dung of Vietravel says most people booking tours to the US are affluent - like businesspeople, those with relatives abroad young people with good jobs.

Assessing the market

Most major travel agencies have cottoned on to the needs of visitors and now tailor their tours accordingly. Hoan My's Khai says: "We carefully study customers' needs and then classify them before we finalise the tours."

"If we find that people wish to combine their trip with studying the educational environment in the US we organise tours of some schools.

"For those looking for partners to expand their business in the US, we schedule the tour in such a way that they can get in touch with businesses."

Tourists wishing to visit relatives are taken to places with major Vietnamese populations like New York, Washington and Los Angeles, he says.

Saigontourist focuses on organising meetings, incentives, conferences, exhibitions (MICE) tours, including for executives from Vietnamese enterprises.

Dung says Vietravel creates opportunities for tourists to get in touch with the Vietnamese communities living in different parts of the US if they visit during certain times like Christmas and Lunar New Year.