When Vietnam announced a full border closure in March 2020, news of travel firms planning to lay off workers or stop operations temporarily was already generating fear and anxiety among tourism industry workers. By April, when bookings were limited and the number of tourists coming in dropped significantly, travel companies were forced to make tough decisions.
Hang Pham was one of the millions of tourism workers who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After two years of working as a sales consultant for a destination management company in Ho Chi Minh City, she had to be let go.
“The company knew that the pandemic would drag on, and we won’t have any bookings coming in for a long time. I knew the management did their best to keep all of us, but it’s just not possible,” Hang said. She and a hundred others bid farewell. “From almost 200 employees, I think only about 50 remained.”
Fortunately, Hang already had a fallback plan — to build her own online clothing store. Today, she works full-time selling ready-to-wear clothes and accessories on Facebook and Instagram. Her small business is growing, she said, and she plans to stick to it for the foreseeable future.
While Vietnam’s full reopening is showing positive impacts on inbound tourism, Hang doesn’t plan to work for a travel firm again.
“What I learned from the pandemic is that the travel industry is very vulnerable,” explained Hang. “It was heartbreaking to get laid off, and there’s really no guarantee it won’t happen again. There’s still no uncertainty.”
Foreign arrivals in Vietnam saw an 89.1% increase in the first quarter of 2022, according to data released by the General Statistics Office. More than 90,000 visitors entered the country, mostly from Asia and Europe. Arrivals by air also increased by 165.2%, thanks to the resumption of several international flights to and from Vietnam’s major cities.
These figures signal recovery for an industry that contributes greatly to the national economy. In 2019, the tourism sector accounted for 9.2% of the GDP. It’s expected to thrive in the coming months, especially after Vietnam scrapped vaccination and quarantine requirements for all arrivals. Ho Chi Minh City, which has recently revealed its tourism resumption plan, expects to see a revenue increase of 3% month-to-month and up to 1.4% year-on-year.
Currently, Vietnam only requires an RT-PCR COVID-19 test taken 72 hours before arrival or a rapid antigen test taken 24 hours before arrival for foreign visitors to enjoy a quarantine-free holiday around Vietnam. Visa policies have also been restored to pre-pandemic times, including visa exemptions and e-visa applications.
Even so, another former employee of a travel firm doesn’t want to keep her hopes too high for now. Sarah Truong had to resign from her job as a product specialist in May 2021. Originally from Dong Nai, Sarah was only working eight days a month with only about 35% of her actual salary.
“I worked in the inbound travel industry, and there were no customers at all. We didn’t see the situation changing or improving that time,” shared Sarah.
Sarah immediately got a job at an insurance company, where she now works as a full-time insurance consultant.
“My new job brings value to people’s lives, to the community. And with this job, I can earn as much as $1000 a month. I can say this is a better career option for me.”
Hang and Sarah’s reluctance to join the tourism industry again isn’t an isolated case. Industry experts already warned even before the March 15 reopening that the sector will suffer labor shortage in the first few months.
According to statistics from Vietnam’s Tourism Advisory Board, the number of employees in the industry decreased by 90% in 2021. Nearly five million were unemployed, while companies that strived to remain operational only kept about 20% of their workforce. Nearly a quarter of highly-skilled workers have already jumped ship to other industries that are less vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.
Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) general director Nguyen Trung Khanh told Vietnam Plus that the government needs to introduce policies that invigorate firms and lure back workers. VNAT has urged the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to extend support packages — including financial support, favorable loans, and tax cuts — to firms until late 2023 as they continue to overcome labor demands.
VNAT has also continuously offered training programs for tourism workers to prepare them for the new normal of travel.
‘We’ll get there soon’
For Hoang Xuan Vinh, currently a product manager, at a Ho Chi Minh City-based travel firm, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful about Vietnam’s tourism recovery.
Vinh was laid off from the company in May 2020 after 17 long years of working as a reservations/operations assistant to a travel consultant and then to a product specialist. From 2020 to mid-2021, he found other jobs as sales manager for a hotel in Hoi An and as hotel manager in Ho Chi Minh City.
“I got a call from my former employer last year that he wanted me back. I immediately said yes because travel really is my passion.”
The uncertainty of the COVID situation in Vietnam and around the world worries him every day, but “we just have to adjust to the situation and continue to do what we’re supposed to do.”
“I hope the industry fully recovers. We’ll get there soon. Tourists will soon flock to Vietnam, just like before.”