Since 2018, private tour guide Hoang Thien Anh Tuan of Tommie Phu Quoc Local Tours would take an average of 10 curious foreign travelers around the beach-fringed island of Phu Quoc every day. Born and raised there, Tommie expertly guides his clients through the hidden wonders of Phu Quoc, introduces them to local villages, and offers them the best ways to experience island life. He is Phu Quoc’s “island man”, as many of his friends and clients would call him.
But when the pandemic hit Vietnam and forced the country to close its international borders, the number of Tommie’s customers dwindled down. But lucky for him, even when foreign travelers were banned from entering Vietnam, many locals and expats were still allowed to travel to Phu Quoc in most of 2020.
“I still had guests who went snorkeling and island hopping or toured around the mainland, to the fishermen village where they could see how locals live. I had three to four bookings per week last year, which was already good considering the situation,” said Tommie.
“But when the government issued Directive 16 because of the fourth outbreak, all tourism activities were suspended. Like everybody else, my business has been greatly affected. My last customers were groups from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. They came here before June, just before the lockdown.”
Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s largest island and top tourist destination, is home to over 100,000 people who mainly rely on its fast-growing tourism sector. Many tour guides like Tuan, who work independently, are feeling the major impact of the country’s fourth and worst outbreak. With the movement restrictions implemented since late May in most southern localities limiting the number of arrivals to the island, private tours were basically impossible to do.
So when Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh agreed with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism’s proposal to reopen Phu Quoc island to vaccinated foreign tourists in October, Tommie immediately started planning for his marketing campaigns.
“The first thing that I need to do is to offer a good price. I know everyone suffered financially because of COVID, so I will offer fair discounts,” he said. He also plans to be more creative with his tours, adding underwater photo and video perks in his tour packages.
“I also plan to take them to local villages and tell them how the island people cope with the pandemic. I think they would find it interesting to know how life has been after COVID in Phu Quoc.” For dog-loving travelers, Tommie said he will be bringing his pet during the tour to add to the "unique" island experience.
If the plan pushes through, Phu Quoc will be the first destination in the country to welcome fully vaccinated foreign leisure travelers. PM Chin has tasked the provincial government of Kien Giang to coordinate with the tourism ministry and relevant agencies to develop a solid plan to implement the pilot policy.
The Ministry of Health, along with the Ministry of Information and Communications and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will also provide guidelines on the issuance of COVID-19 vaccination certificates.
Qualified foreign visitors from Europe, the US, Northeast Asia, Australia and the Middle East will need to furnish proof that they’ve been fully vaccinated, with their second shot done between 14 days to 12 months before entry to Vietnam. They will slo need a negative PCR test result with the test taken within 72 hours before departure.
Under the six-month trial program, Phu Quoc expects to welcome at least 2,000 tourists every month by charter flight in the first three months. If proven effective, the island will increase allowed entries to 5,000-10,000 by commercial flights.
The island will not be completely reopened in the first months of the program, and visitors will only be permitted to visit selected attractions.
Safety of locals should be prioritized
Like Tommie, Phu Quoc-born Kiel also thought the reopening plan was welcome news. But he’s skeptical about its aftermath. With the number of COVID-19 infections in Kien Giang rising, now standing at 3,034, Kiel can foresee “more cases coming”.
“I want life to go back to normal again on my island. But I think it’s not yet time to allow foreign tourists to visit Phu Quoc,” said Kiel, who works at a restaurant on the island.
In the last seven days, the entire province averaged 168 cases per day. In Phu Quoc, there are currently five COVID infected people in quarantine.
But while the government already admitted that Vietnam needs to learn to “live with the virus”, vaccination is another primary concern among Phu Quoc residents.
Kiel has not received even a single dose of the virus yet, and is still waiting for further instructions from local authorities.
As of September 4, less than 37,000 people in Phu Quoc have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and about 8000 people or 6.3% of the island population have been fully vaccinated.
Tommie, who is also unvaccinated, said many locals have expressed concern over their safety when foreign tourists start flocking in.
“I heard that they are worried because most of us are not vaccinated yet, and we really don’t know when we can get our vaccines. That means we are not safe from the virus. What happens if tourists are tested positive on the island?”
PM Chinh on Friday instructed the health ministry to give priority to allocating vaccines to Phu Quoc island. The government said it will fully vaccinate all residents on Phu Quoc before opening. The tourism ministry meanwhile affirmed that the island has sufficient COVID-19 quarantine and treatment facilities.
Presently, local authorities in Phu Quoc are instensifying large-scale testing. According to data from Phu Quoc Daily News, the latest random tests done to more than 7,600 people all showed negative results.
Sea borders are also being constantly monitored to prevent illegal entries from neighboring towns. Operation of commercial lights, boats and ferries have been halted since July.
Hotels, restaurants prepare for October reopening
With health and safety a sure major concern among travelers coming to Phu Quoc next month, the island’s hospitality sector vows to strictly follow safety measures imposed by the government, and take extra steps to keep properties safe, clean and virus-free.
InterContinental Phu Quoc, one of the many luxury properties dotting the island, has already started implementing additional practices using “new science-led protocols and service measures” to ensure that the entire property is safe and clean for both guests and employees.
“In Vietnam, the local government and citizens have been making great efforts in this pandemic. At InterContinental Phu Quoc Long Beach Resort, we want to do our part to make sure that it stays this way at our resort. We treat every guest staying with us like our family – with love and care. With that in mind, safety is the absolute priority so that our guests can completely relax and have the peace of mind that they are safe and being looked after,” said Oliver Horn, General Manager of InterContinental Phu Quoc Long Beach Resort.
The resort is implementing increased deep cleaning and disinfection cycles as well as reduced contact at check-in, touchless transactions, sanitizer stations, and a new approach to services including buffets,banquets, catering, and room-service. In the guest rooms, decorative items such as bed throws and physical collateral including the guest service directories and in-room dining menus have been removed to increase overall hygiene. Instead, all information about the resort will be available on guest room televisions through an interactive menu.
The resort’s own Sora & Umi restaurant, albeit still serving breakfast buffet, will have staff deliver their selected dishes straight to their tables, to limit movement and interactions. Other restaurants and bars will also offer contactless menu ordering, and guests may scan a provided QR code to view the menu and order from their personal digital devices.
Further requirements from the health and tourism ministries for properties accommodating foreign guests include separate areas for them, besides the mandated isolated testing and quarantine areas.
The ministry will also identify businesses — hotels, resorts, restaurants, tour operators — that will participate in the trial program. More reopening guidelines and safety protocols are expected to be formally issued in the coming weeks.