But visas are just the beginning, history tells us that we need to work hard in order to keep tourists coming back
The relief was palpable on social media travel pages in Vietnam this past week after the National Assembly approved a government proposal to extend the validity of tourist e-visas from 30 days to 90 days.
The change, effective from August 15, will also allow multiple entries within the 90-day period without applicants having to go through the process of obtaining a new visa each time.
In addition, the list of nationalities permitted to obtain e-visas has been extended to 80 countries.
Tourism experts in Vietnam expect the decision will have a positive impact on the tourism industry here.
They believe it will help Vietnam compete with other countries in the region that have favourable visa policies such as those offered by Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia.
Vietnam certainly has favourable points of difference as a travel destination to those countries – it’s not simply another Thailand, Singapore or Indonesia.
The law change is seen to be a positive move towards making Vietnam a more attractive tourist destination that will cater for different types of travellers as well, like short-stay and long-stay tourists, businesspeople who wish to stay on for some leisure time, and senior citizens.
And I imagine backpackers and vloggers will be licking their lips with anticipation, too.
Love them or loathe them, you have to admit they present Vietnam in a positive light for the most part via their social media posts and offer travel perspectives that those of us who live here can’t.
An interesting article about the future of tourism in Vietnam by Martin Koerner, the Chairman of the Tourism Working Group of the Vietnam Business Forum, just prior to the government’s official announcement last week, caught my attention on Linkedin.
He argues that there’s still plenty more work to be done to make Vietnam the attractive tourist destination it’s striving to be.
The first thing he says that needs improving is the quality and efficiency of airport services and facilities, especially in major cities like Ho Chi Minh City. He cites waiting times, immigration procedures, baggage handling and security checks as key areas for improvement.
I did notice the other week on return from a trip to Cambodia that it appears some aspects of security have been outsourced to a third party, so perhaps changes are already being made for the better.
That final baggage X-ray check just before the exit doors at the international terminal is no longer the shemozzle it once was, although we may have just got lucky on what was a slow travel morning on a Sunday.
Let me know about your experiences recently in the comments section below.
Koerner also says the quality and diversity of tourism products and services that cater to the changing needs and preferences of tourists need to be improved and should come in the form of investment in infrastructure, human resources, technology and innovation.
By this, I presume he means more strategic efforts are needed that aren’t simply reactionary like the one in response to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City’s “shithouse” ranking the cities received in some random public toilet density audit that ranked them near the bottom of a list of 69 cities worldwide for the number of public restrooms per square kilometre.
I’m all for better toilets and more of them, but like taxis, no matter how many you have, there never seems to be any when you so badly need one.
And besides, when was the last time someone came back from an international holiday and said they were never going to return because there weren’t enough toilets?
But perhaps the most important point Koerner highlights is the need to showcase Vietnam’s unique features and attractions – things like its cuisine, landscapes, history and culture, towns and cities, and most importantly, people.
Yes, we’ve already been told and shown ad nauseam how good the food is, how ancient the culture is, and how friendly the people are in Vietnam, but often tourists’ expectations don’t match what they receive in reality when they arrive at their destination.
We who live here have the luxury of time and lived experience to know where the best banh mi is or how to find the best market outside of District 1, the centre of Ho Chi Minh City.
But that’s not the case for travellers who are generally time-poor and don’t have the local knowledge that we have and get led to the same well-trodden and tired tourist beats by tour guides or YouTubers, as I discovered on a recent trip to Kampot in southern Cambodia.
At an event back in March organised by PR Newswire where the theme centred on the power of storytelling in hospitality, this was perhaps best exemplified by speaker Matt Millard, founder of branding and PR agency PurpleAsia based in Ho Chi Minh City, when he regaled us with stories about his decades of experience helping clients in Vietnam tell their brand stories.
He believes that a pretty poor job has been done in telling Vietnam’s story, despite it being an extremely interesting one.
His hilarious reference to what he calls “The Spring Roll Index”, the phenomenon whereby tour operators up and down the country erroneously think they should feed tourists what they expect to eat in Vietnam, that is, spring rolls, means they leave with the wrong impression of Vietnamese cuisine and an unrivalled knowledge of the variety of “springies” to be had from north to south.
But his point is, there are myriad ways of telling Vietnam’s fascinating story uniquely and authentically, which isn’t being done enough and which doesn’t need to be replicated over and over.
Indeed, criticism of how Vietnam is perceived as a tourist destination is nothing new.
A blog post by Tim Doling on his brilliant website Historic Vietnam features an assessment of what was wrong with tourism in Saigon published in a French language journal way back in 1919.
More than a hundred years ago, experts were lamenting the state of Saigon’s ports – sound familiar?
There was disappointment that Saigon wasn’t taking advantage of the potential in tourist trade because the port hadn’t been developed, the river hadn’t been dredged so as to accommodate large ships of the time, and efforts hadn’t been made to reduce “the horrifying five hour journey up river from Cap-Saint-Jacques” which is current-day Vung Tau.
The post also refers to infrastructure deficiencies and the “level of comfort tourists will be able to enjoy” once they venture beyond Saigon on excursions: “Comfort, we must admit, is rather absent.”
But the majority of the piece is dedicated to Saigon and what “awaits our great tourist when his ship arrives.”
Back then it highlighted the noise, dirt and stench of sewage and rotting fish that greeted luckless tourists on arrival to the so-called Pearl of the Orient, including the “smell of ammonia” in places where men regularly urinated publicly.
Combined with the heat, crowded pavements and lack of sanitation, the author bemoans that “our tourist” can’t conceal the fact “his stay in Saigon hasn’t made him smile a great deal and he has the urge to get back on the boat.”
This has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?
But perhaps the most prophetic section of the piece comes towards the end when the author says, “…as long as all these drawbacks remain, Saigon will never be thought of as a favourite stopover for tourism or grand touring” and he asks how much effort and how many initiatives will be needed in order for change to occur.
More than 100 years later, they’re still excellent questions that need to be considered because Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh as travellers refer to it) deserves more than to be thought of as merely the end point of a fabulous trip up north and a place to get the hell out of quickly.
Let me know your thoughts on the topic in the comments section below
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