Sunday, October 10, 2010

Vietnam - Laying a thousand-year Egg

A BANNER on the back of an electric buggy trolling Hanoi’s old quarter reads “Thanh Long Hanoi International Tourism Festival”. It refers to the celebrations being held in Hanoi from October 1st to 10th, when the capital officially turns 1,000 years old. There are no more international tourists than usual though. Somehow no one got round to inviting them.

This despite the many officials who extol the importance of luring foreign tourists to the capital’s millennial celebrations. In 2007 a campaign with the questionable slogan of “Hidden Charm” ran around the world, airing on several international cable networks. Nothing special for Hanoi’s 1,000th though. The national flag carrier, Vietnam Airlines, did offer a promotion in honour of the occasion. Trouble is, the flights are all out of Vietnam, not into it.

International travel companies, used to the vagaries of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT), might have put together their own packages for curious tourists. But they weren’t provided with even a basic programme. With no idea what the celebrations would be, where they would take place—or even when they were to take place—foreign agencies had little to work with. A travel executive says that VNAT “really dropped the ball on this one.” A marketing manager based in Hanoi blogged her frustrations, which were given special focus by a singularly useless screen which has been counting down the days: from one thousand to the present.

The tourism authority has often tried pushing Vietnam’s value as a cultural destination. Hence “Hidden Charm” (very Hidden, jaded observers remark). Yet the biggest cultural milestone in 1,000 years has all but been forgotten. Nearly all the events listed on the recently released programme celebrate the heavily worthy sort of thing that authorities imagine will enthral visitors. For instance, don’t miss the “Launching ceremony of the bookcase named: Thang Long thousand years of culture”.

This tin-eared body has declared its intention to increase the number of foreign visitors any number of times and it claims to foresee tourism becoming an important part of the economy. Yet it keeps falling on its face. Interactive screens for tourists recommend bars that closed four years ago. The VNAT website advertises the celebrations only halfway down its page. “Tourism festivals” are often staged in unlikely places, such as Thanh Hoa province’s Sam Son Beach—a sort of Vietnamese Blackpool, with more visible prostitution. (How many of the exhibitions and events planned for the celebration will be suited to foreign tourists’ tastes is another matter. Cobras and pangolins preserved in rice wine, anyone?)

According to government estimates Vietnam sees 3.3m tourist arrivals each year. This number might be inflated by the sort of old-fashioned processing methods that can count even a foreign resident’s visa run as a tourist arrival. Many genuine tourists arrive on package tours from China or South Korea. But luring in the Western market is still seen as crucial.

Vietnam has a return rate of just 5% compared to Thailand’s whopping 50%. To compare the two nations’ industries directly would be unfair, when Vietnam’s tourist industry is so young in comparison. It only reopened to the world in 1986—long after Thailand was a vastly popular destination. But poor marketing of services and overall problems with infrastructure, “same-same” package trips and various tourist-targeting scams have kept Vietnam as a one-off destination, when it could be much more. The Economist

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