I recently received a group of 10 French tourists who went on a cruise tour of Ha Long Bay for two days and one night.
They loved the beautiful landscape of the world-renowned bay but were very critical of the environment after being bothered by dust and rubbish throughout the trip.
“Ha Long is full of garbage,” they complained at the end of the trip and decided right then they did not want to visit the bay ever again.
They said they could not understand why such a beautiful bay where they had to pay very high prices had so much garbage. They asked why tourists could not buy tickets online and had to wait in line for a long time for something so basic.
They also pointed out that the people offering tourism services there want to rip off foreigners.
As someone who has worked for many years in the tourism industry, I am no stranger to these complaints.
My team and I used to run a campaign to promote Vietnamese tourism. We named it “WOW Vietnam” and listed seven reasons why one must come to the country and explore it.
We used the seven letters of the country’s name: V – Varied landscape, I – Indigenous culture, E – Exotic beaches, T – Timeless charm, N – Natural heritage sites, A – Ancient cities, M – Memories to cherish forever.
But then over the years, as I tried to show them seven reasons to visit Vietnam, they told one another the seven things that scare them in Vietnam: robbery, theft, traffic jam, road accident, bad service attitude, dirty restrooms, and polluted environment.
Vietnam became one of the first Asian countries to reopen its borders and welcome foreign visitors after the Covid pandemic.
However, the tourism industry has failed to make full use of that advantage. In 2022 we only received 3.5 million foreign visitors, far below the target of five million.
Many conferences have been held and experts have analyzed why we failed to achieve the target.
Most agree that the main reason is the absence of Chinese tourists, who usually make up 30% of all foreign visitors to Vietnam, due to China’s zero-Covid policy which caused its borders to be closed until recently.
However, even after China reopened on January 8, a survey by travel agencies found that Vietnam was not among the top destinations for Chinese travelers.
Therefore, we cannot and should not rely on Chinese visitors.
Over the long term, if we cannot save tourists from those seven fears, Vietnam’s tourism industry will face failures for which we have to take responsibility.
As the government already considers tourism a major industry which contributes more than 10% of the economy, we need effective solutions and their implementation must be consistent, determined, and strict.
In addition to a more open visa policy, which has been spoken about frequently, there are three other things that need to be done immediately to create a vision and a solid foundation for the tourism industry.
First of all, we need to identify the national brand. For example, if Vietnam is identified as a “heritage destination,” we should provide tourists with high-class, authentic and unique travel experiences by being creative with heritage travel services.
But if we are a “nature destination,” we need more interesting travel products to give tourists the best “back to nature” experience aside from building better infrastructure.
Experience shows me that if Vietnam wants to attract wealthy European, Australian, and American visitors, who usually love nature and want to have unique experiences, and get them to stay for a long time and visit many places around the country, we should limit the construction of cable cars and keep our beaches and forests as pristine as possible and ensure that everywhere we take them is clean and civilized.
Brutal interference in the natural landscape and creating cheap travel experiences will not just destroy our tourism resources but also detract from Vietnam’s brand value.
We should not ignore tourists of middle and upper classes, as well as elderly visitors from developed countries such as Japan and South Korea who often choose to travel for medical care after they retire. Vietnam can become an ideal destination for people to enjoy life in their old age.
Secondly, we should invest in infrastructure and digital applications in tourism management from central to local levels.
Authorities should use specific figures in their reports rather than vague descriptions about the situation, which create misconceptions about the performance of the tourism sector.
For example, the effectiveness of attracting foreign tourists must be fully considered in terms of the amount of foreign currency they bring in and not just the number of visitors since not many spend significantly in Vietnam.
The quality of life is increasingly improving, and therefore visitors’ demands will not be limited. With tourists willing to spend money to be able to go straight from the plane to the limousine to the hotel, making them queue up to buy a paper ticket to visit a landscape is outrageous.
Finally, we have to ensure good management of tourist destinations. The target is to keep them clean and green, free of garbage and wastewater.
In addition to eliminating prejudice about the seven fears, it requires close supervision by localities and encouraging local people to do tourism in a civilized manner.
Every citizen can be a tourism ambassador, be it a smiling immigration officer greeting visitors when they arrive at the airport, a taxi driver who is not greedy and charges visitors accurate fares or the man on the street who does not litter.
All of them can contribute to the creation of a tourist nation.
I believe that, with the country’s strengths, a long-term development strategy and the desire to welcome visitors graciously, Vietnam’s tourism can far exceed the target of eight or 10 million foreign visitors this year.
Pham Ha is the Chairman and CEO of Lux Group.