If the daily tally of coronavirus infections in Vietnam were to be highlighted, the record-breaking figures can be a cause of alarm, especially as Vietnam gets ready for a full reopening come March 15. But the country’s vaccination rate is one of the highest in the world and new infections seem to have little to no symptoms. This is the new normal, the government said, and it remains poised to lift all entry restrictions and officially start the recovery of its tourism industry.
But questions still abound: What does this sudden surge in cases mean? What does the new normal of tourism really look like? What do travelers expect to see and experience when they land in any of Vietnam’s international ports? What can the government and all industry players do to make the plans possible and successful?
We spoke with Dr. Ngo Thanh Loan, a senior professor at the Research Center for Sustainable Tourism; and the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, VNU-HCMC. Dr. Loan earned her Ph.D. in Geology at the University of Montreal in Canada and her Master’s Degree in Development Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne. As a credible expert in the tourism field, Dr. Loan has been a watchman in the evolution of travel and the policies surrounding it amidst the global health crisis.
Dr. Loan provided her input on Vietnam’s reopening of international travel, addressed current trends in the tourism industry, as well as discussed fundamental steps to successfully navigate the changing seas in the industry.
Vietnam has had reopening plans before. But due to the complications of the pandemic, those plans have been postponed. Will March 15 be different?
We still have two weeks until then, so I think it’s still a bit uncertain to say. In recent months, the tourism industry has been well-prepared to welcome back international tourists, yet the plan can be postponed if there are signs that it’s not safe to proceed with the reopening. Still, I think having a solid date is like setting up a deadline so that businesses are geared up and well-prepared before tourists come flowing in.
What does the tourism industry need to prepare to welcome back tourists?
Tourism products are very complex, as they are linked to lots of aspects, including transportation, entertainment, leisure, accommodation, catering, and many other services, which need to be prepared in sync with each other.
At the same time, health and safety are what matters to people post-pandemic, so these segments of tourism also need to be able to advertise and underline safety standards that they are carrying out.
How about Vietnam’s infrastructure? Does it pose a challenge to the resumption of travel?
Definitely. Lots of facilities are deteriorating as they haven’t received any guests for a while. While large entertainment facilities and locations are part of an area’s infrastructure and therefore may not be severely affected, the hardest hit would be the food and beverage service premises.
Nevertheless, much as infrastructure could be a barrier that needs to be overcome, it is not as urgent as the labor or the human factor. In recent years, the human resource within the tourism industry has switched to lots of different occupations, and as workers manage to find more stable jobs, the chances of them returning to the tourism industry in the future are slim.
For example, for Hoi An city in Quang Nam province, tourism is the main source of economic activity. Now that tourism activities are dull, and businesses are not extending their lease, the employees there are also looking for new job opportunities. According to the Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of Quang Nam province, workers are flowing towards the Chu Lai Open Economic Zone for more stable jobs, especially when there are higher labor demands in the area.
In fact, here in the Faculty of Tourism, lots of our students are not graduating on time as they can’t apply for internships, which is required as part of our curriculum, and some of those that have graduated have also changed careers. While here in Ho Chi Minh city, we can easily organize or update short training programs for tour guides, other localities are still faced with workforce-related challenges.
After two trying years navigating through the pandemic, do you think businesses are ready to “go big” in their investment post-pandemic, or will there be doubts and hesitation?
Much as they are flexible in operations, smaller businesses would be most severely affected. The bigger enterprises, on the other hand, are usually multi-faceted, and therefore would be able to cover the losses in their tourism-related parts using the profits from other business activities.
Regarding their response towards tourism resumption plans, I think firms would be quite hesitant. During the pandemic, I’ve even seen lots of companies close down and even terminate their business licenses.
The companies that are still in business have gone online and are becoming flexible and more digitalized in operations with their online tours and booking processes. However, in order to earn customers’ trust, these firms will have to be more professional and reliable by having their head or representative offices reopened instead of remaining fully online.
I believe there’s been an idea or need of such but it’s tricky to implement it. We know Thailand has huge annual tourism campaigns with their slogans, visual or promotion plans. Vietnam has an annual tourism event called “Visit Vietnam Year” but it’s only known within the country. Because we have yet to have a widespread international media campaign before, I think it’s going to be a challenge.
Therefore, now is the time we consider our “unique selling points” to foreign travelers. For example, Vietnam’s ability to contain the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 was our strong suit at that time; and as time changes, we need to think of appealing traits of the country that will align with a post-COVID world circumstance.
What new trends in the tourism industry do you think will emerge post-COVID?
Within the new trends popping up, some are really in line with our post-COVID world, such as traveling alone, in small groups, or taking workstations, where you can at the same time travel and work online, so there’s no need to wait for summer vacations or take days off.
And then we’re also seeing technology being leveraged more in the tourism industry. What was once only prevalent among the younger generations or the “digital natives” are now popular to older people, as working online has made it a habit for them to use the internet more often.
Holidaymakers are aiming for relatively less touristy or crowded locations, especially for international travelers. At the same time, wellness tourism is catching on as people are more considerate of their healthy habits and lifestyles, from the way they eat to the air they breathe. I’d say this movement was already getting more and more popular, and now it’s only fast-tracked by the global pandemic.