Friday, December 26, 2008

Tourism sector hindered by poor infrastructure, services

It is time for the tourism sector to stop focusing on how many foreign visitors travel to Vietnam, but on how satisfied they feel, a tourism official said
Vietnam needs to improve infrastructure and diversify its tourism products to attract more foreign visitors in the long term, experts and insiders have said.

The tourism industry is already feeling the effects of the global economic downturn, with international arrivals falling by 22 percent year-on-year in November.

The sector, which employs more than 10 percent of country’s workforce, faces zero growth or even worse next year, AFP quoted Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Hoang Tuan Anh as saying earlier this month.

But analysts said once the world economy recovers, people will start travelling again and Vietnam should be prepared for opportunities.

Ngo Minh Duc, Huong Giang Travel Agency general director, said Vietnam needed to restructure its infrastructure for tourism, especially accommodation, otherwise tourists would not return.

Analysts said there were several factors that decided the success or failure of a tourist destination, including the convenience of air traffic and the availability of accommodation, entertainment facilities and public services.

Shorokin Andrey of Russia’s Capital Tour Company said because Vietnam only has international airports in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, it is hard for operators to arrange tours.

Russian tourists are often exhausted after a 10-hour flight to Vietnam, but they then face another four to eight hours in a bus to get to resort cities like Phan Thiet or Nha Trang, he said.

If Vietnam could launch more air routes, the country would attract as many Russian visitors as Thailand or China, he said.

Many tour operators said the local tourism industry depended too much on natural attractions and it has failed to diversify tourism products or improve services.

Patrick Gaveau, marketing director of HCMC-based Focus Asia, said after complaints that prices of tour packages to Vietnam were high, many people suggested travel agencies lower their prices.

However, lowering prices would not solve the problem once and for all, Gaveau said, noting that it was necessary to figure out why there were such complaints.

He said tour packages to Singapore, for instance, were even more expensive, but tourists were happy to pay because both the infrastructure and services were good and most people speak English.

Meanwhile, there are few tourist attractions in Vietnam and foreigners only know a handful of places such as Phan Thiet, Nha Trang, Phu Quoc or Da Nang, even though Vietnam has a coastline of more than 3,000 kilometers, Gaveau said.

La Quoc Khanh, deputy director of the HCMC Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said it was time for the tourism sector to stop focusing on how many foreign visitors travel to Vietnam, but on how satisfied they feel.

Nguyen Manh Cuong, deputy head of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT), said poor infrastructure was the biggest problem that the local tourism industry had to face now.

But analysts said even the administration was not determined to solve the problem. They said the government set a higher target for the sector every year but it had not created any specific plans to improve infrastructure or develop accommodation for tourists.

Many travel agencies said they had been asking for the construction of a tourism seaport for more than 10 years but it has not yet been built.

Focus Asia’s Gaveau suggested the government should play a greater role in the development of the local tourism sector and create a comprehensive plan for tourism with the participation of all related agencies.

Other hindering factors

The visa application process was the “largest obstacle to establishing Vietnam as a global destination,” AFP quoted Baron R. Ah Moo, CEO of Indochina Hotels and Resorts, as saying.

“Due to the processing time, last-minute travel to Vietnam is not an option and has been replaced by weekend trips to Phuket, Bali, Macao and Singapore,” he said.

Tour operators said the government should grant visa exemption for tourists from important markets.

For example, while many countries are easing their visa application processes to attract more tourists from China, a main market of Vietnamese tourism, it still takes a Chinese tourist up to one month to get a visa to travel to Vietnam.

Baron R. Ah Moo said an online registration or a visa-on-arrival system would help speed up the process.

Another weak point of the tourism industry was the lack of marketing.

Claire del Rosario-Bernabe, a hotel marketing director, said she wondered why Vietnam had not launched any new marketing campaigns to help its tourism sector overcome the current difficult time.

The recent political crisis in Thailand was a good opportunity for Vietnam to promote itself as a safe destination, and with effective marketing campaigns, the country would attract a large number of foreign tourists, she said.

But because of limited funds, it would be hard for Vietnam to be able to launch large campaigns like its neighboring countries, RosarioBernabe added.

According to VNAT, it is allotted around VND20 billion (US$1.18 million) for tourism promotion every year.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Huong, deputy head of the Tourism Promotion Department under VNAT, said her department needed larger and more stable funds because it is hard to embark on a long-term campaign when funds were allotted on a yearly basis.

VNAT has asked the government to spend $20-30 million on a global marketing campaign to draw back visitors next year and afterwards, AFP reported.