As travel to Vietnam continues to accelerate due to global economic growth and awareness of the country’s charming cities and landscapes, the industry is grappling with unprecedented crowds and desires for alternative forms of tourism.
We meet with two industry leaders, Nicholas Wade of Khiri Travel Vietnam and Peter Lawrence of Trails Of Indochina, as they discuss the challenges and opportunities of navigating this new phase, and what continues to excite them the most about Vietnam and the region.
What industry trends have you seen evolve in 2019 within Vietnam and the Southeast Asia region in 2019?
Nicholas: For us at Khiri, we focus on experiential tours that dive deep into a country’s culture and history. We want to give clients more than the cookie-cutter tours, more than the tick-box obvious experiences. This has certainly been a trend that we have seen grow in popularity in 2019. More and more visitors are looking for something they can’t find in the guidebooks, something that they would not be able to do themselves.
Peter: The past year I have seen growth in travelers searching for memorable experiences and authentic moments. People want to make an authentic connection with the local culture. They also want to design trips that incorporate their interests at home with themed travel, participating in unique activities and by going off the beaten path or away from large crowds of tourists. This style of forward-thinking travel has been popular in European and American markets traditionally, and now there is a world-wide shift towards this view.
Where do you see the future of Vietnam tourism being in five years? Is the growth sustainable?
Nicholas: This is the biggest challenge we face, for sure. Growing visitor numbers and over-tourism in destinations such as Ha Long Bay and Hoi An means that we as an industry have to not only monitor, but take action. If destinations are overrun and no longer retain that charm and reason to visit, then we all suffer. I think there are a lot of people within the industry that are trying to make positive changes and shape the future. Late last year, Khiri co-founded IMPACT Vietnam, a collaborative group of competing destination management companies, as a way to work together on issues we face, supporting each other and combining our influences to try to ensure we are making positive changes and leaving a positive, lasting impression on the country we work and live in.
Peter: As I work in the narrow space of luxury tailor-made travel and high-end small group journeys, I definitely believe our style of bespoke travel can be sustainable while benefiting the local community, and will continue to grow with the emergence of new activities and exciting destinations opening up throughout Vietnam. In the larger tourism space, Vietnam is definitely experiencing rapid growth. This is especially true in Asian markets visiting the key cities of HCMC, Da Nang, Hoi An, Hanoi, and Sapa, with a rapid investment in hotels, beach resorts and cruises that I doubt is possible to sustain at its current pace.
How is your company navigating the emergence of online travel agencies? What initiatives are you making if any to contribute to that space?
Nicholas: As a predominantly B2B company, Khiri Travel does not deal with direct customers but instead works with travel agents, our partners, in bringing guests to Vietnam as well as the six other countries we operate in. To this end, OTAs (online travel agencies) have a different type of impact on our business. We face challenges not only in regards to hotel and transport pricing competition, but also product design. Whereas 20 years ago, a DMC (destination management company) may have just packaged together different services and sold them on, we are now leading the way in product design and finding these amazing local tour operators to partner with.
I think that although people are more independent that in years gone by and can now design their own trips, there is still huge value in the services that we offer. Khiri prides itself on its innovative product and top-notch services, we know that OTAs bring further competition but my personal view is that as long as we keep driving our own performance levels forward, we’ll be just fine!
Peter: Trails of Indochina is quite active in the digital space with our own systems team in-house, providing live links showing availability and pricing, our rates, experiences, properties and more. We make sure we are always receiving the best rates from our suppliers, with dedicated colleagues mapping and monitoring all OTAs’ pricing as well as feeds from large bed banks into our master system for comparison of rates and availability. Our clients have online access to our travel expertise including training webinars and extensive pre-trip documentation through our partner site. We are also building an app so all of this information will be available on mobile phones.
What projects in 2019 has your company launched that has been successful and why?
Nicholas: For me, one of the most significant aspects of travel is meeting new people and learning their stories. It’s a comment or request we hear all the time: “I want to embrace the local culture, meet local people…” Well, we at Khiri took note of this and introduced our own Personalities Portfolio. We have found, interviewed, spent days with and become friends with individuals across the country that have incredible stories to tell. From ex-soldiers and historians to artists, photographers and leaders of environmentally sustainable projects, we have a great selection of personalities to choose from.
As a bespoke, tailor-made DMC, Khiri really tries to listen to the interests and desires of its clients. If a client is really interested in the American War, instead of doing a standard day tour in Hanoi, we can extend it and have them spend an hour or two drinking tea with an ex-soldier, learning even more about something that their passionate about. Adding personal value to a tour is critical, and it’s these stories that visitors take home and share with their friends and family.
Peter: As a ground operator (B2B) operating over 20 years here in Southeast Asia, we are focused on both delivering amazing experiences for our client’s guests and outstanding internal support and service for our clients. As Vietnam is increasingly popular, there are more crowds and tourists, so a key initiative is arranging early or private access to key attractions, such as Hue Citadel, or the last Ambassador to South Vietnam villa. For our clients, we are providing industry leading support by scheduling both sales and operational support teams to work throughout both nights and weekends to have better coverage in addition to the traditional office hours.
For our readers out there, what would you note down as your favorite 1) Vietnam and 2) Southeast Asian travel experience that all travelers should consider?
Nicholas: Oh wow, tough question! Vietnam is such an incredible country with such a diversity of options. We always hear that people want to head “off-the-beaten-track”, but that can sometimes means taking days out of a relatively short visit, which could be spent elsewhere. I’d love to take clients up to Ha Giang and the border region with China; it’s stunning! But for higher-end clients or clients with families, it’s not the most accessible.
One thing we focus heavily on is taking people off-the-beaten-track within major destinations. Our signature tour in Saigon, for example, doesn’t take guests to the Reunification Palace, War Museum or Notre Dame Cathedral. But instead goes to a local park first thing to see (and join in with) the locals as they start the day with Thai Chi, yoga or badminton. We take guests to a secret underground bunker that was used a printing press for propaganda during the war, we have lunch at a secret rooftop restaurant, and focus on the untold stories of Saigon.
Outside of Vietnam, last year, I had the opportunity to visit Myanmar and spend time with our team there. Inle Lake is stunning! But as you can imagine, unless you know what you’re doing and where you’re going, you can end up with everyone else. The Shan and Intha villages with their stilted homes along the bank of the lake are rarely visited and reaching them via boat and bicycle gives a totally new feel to the experience. Certainly off the beaten path, and certainly not worth missing.
Peter: Choosing a favourite travel experience in Vietnam to recommend is difficult, as there are so many wonderful activities here. However, wandering through Hanoi’s narrow alleyways trying the best local street-food dishes at authentic family owned stalls serving only one dish for generations such such as Bun Cha, Café Truong, Xoi, Nem, Pho Cuon, and enjoying learning about it all from our charming Hanoian food blogger is pretty amazing experience for all travelers. For a unique Southeast Asian experience, I would highly recommend staying on a converted oil rig off Borneo (Seaventures) and diving Sipadan by day, a world class dive site full of turtles, sharks, mantas and huge schools of fish. And at night, learning traditional tribal songs and sharing drinks by the fire.