It’s almost certain now that Vietnam will be extending the validity of e-visas to three months from only 30 days to lure in foreign travelers. Visa-free stays for certain nationalities may also be tripled to 45 days. The island Phu Quoc is even eyeing a 6-month visa waiver for foreigners directly entering the famous holiday destination.
It’s been a long time coming, commented many tourists who’ve been doing border runs to renew their 30-day single-entry visas. Tourism experts and travelers alike have repeatedly called for friendlier visa policies since the border reopening in March 2022.
Amidst these optimistic headlines, however, is the fact that Vietnam is falling short of its tourism expectations. The country received over 3.6 million foreign visitors in the first four months, nearly half this year’s target. But Thailand, in comparison, already surpassed eight million visitors in the same period.
Direct flights to Phu Quoc from India, Taiwan, and Hong Kong were canceled earlier this month due to meager demands. Foreign visitors in April experienced a sharp decline of nearly 30% compared to the previous month, leading airlines to temporarily suspend air services.
Will the new visa regulations be the savior for Vietnam’s struggling tourism industry? It’s doubtful. While visa problems have been a persistent issue, they are just the tip of the iceberg.
Vietnam must confront many other pressing concerns that cast a dark shadow over its reputation as a welcoming destination. From widespread corruption and bribery at immigration checkpoints to reports of harassment and safety concerns, the country’s tourism woes run deep.
The tale of ‘coffee money’
A story of a Singaporean traveler getting asked for a “tip” at the Noi Bai International Airport upon his exit highlights an ongoing problem that has often been swept under the rug: corruption within immigration.
The traveler posted on Facebook that an immigration officer returned his plane ticket and pointed to the word “Tip” the latter wrote. Scared and confused, the traveler ended up giving VND 500,000 VND to have his passport stamped.
In April, a seasoned Chinese traveler exposed his unfortunate encounters with immigration officials in Vietnam. He was asked between $4 and $14 on three separate occasions.
“The fact that these officers are not the same person makes me even more disappointed,” he wrote on Twitter.
Immigration corruption in Vietnam has become so widespread that it has been given benign-sounding euphemisms such as ‘coffee money’ or ‘tea money,’ further normalizing the pervasive practice of bribery.
Although the problem has been acknowledged by the government, and new regulations have been put in place to increase transparency, more progress has yet to be made in curbing the practice. Many have now just come to accept bribery as part of the system, further perpetuating the problem.
“When you’re in that situation, standing in front of an immigration officer, you’d feel trapped. It’s almost impossible to say ‘no’ when they ask for money,” comments one on Twitter.
Alarming indecent acts
Instances of indecent exposure and flashing incidents targeting foreign women in Saigon have gained widespread attention on social media in recent months, sparking concerns regarding the safety and well-being of tourists in Vietnam. These distressing occurrences have not only left many foreign visitors feeling vulnerable and fearful but have also dealt a blow to the country’s reputation as a friendly and safe nation.
When embarking on a journey to an unfamiliar place, the assurance of safety and security holds paramount importance for most travelers. The recent surge in such incidents within Saigon jeopardizes foreign visitors’ trust and confidence in the country’s ability to provide a secure and enjoyable travel experience.
In a Women’s Day interview with Vietcetera in 2022, expats revealed feelings of insecurity and disrespect due to the prevalent occurrences of flashing and cat-calling. Long-time expat, Leigh Jones, said, “I believe until sexual assault is no longer treated as a minor crime, any other measures will simply be superficial.”
Several female expats and tourists have bravely shared personal accounts to caution others and shed light on the issue, offering specific details about the physical appearance of the perpetrators and the motorbikes they use. Some have sought help from their workplaces, knowing full well that going straight to the police won’t yield favorable results. Many have considered taking matters into their own hands, handing out leaflets containing faces and plate numbers to spread awareness.
Overpriced goods from aggressive vendors
Many international travelers typically welcome the noise and chaos at Ben Thanh Market. It’s lively and vibrant, the perfect place to embrace Saigon’s intense energy. But it only takes two hard arm-pulling and an overly priced handwoven scarf to scare people off from the famous market.
A foreigner who traveled to Vietnam in April wrote a review on TripAdvisor, expressing disappointment over the ridiculously inflated prices. “ I found that products worth VND 200,000 were priced at VND 1 million. During the bargaining process, I found the sellers quite aggressive and rude.”
During the recent long holiday, tourists complained about being overcharged for their tours. Organized day tours to famous sites were priced twice or thrice more for services that “didn’t meet even half our expectations.”
“Water activities such as seabed walking charged an extra fee that was more expensive than the original tour price,” a tourist in Phu Quoc told VnExpress. Many others said the prices of food were priced differently for foreigners.
Beyond markets and tour agencies, there is also a growing issue of taxi scams that taint travelers’ experiences in the country. Several taxi drivers have been found guilty of overcharging unsuspecting tourists in popular destinations such as Saigon, Hanoi, and Danang, some billing ten times the standard metered fare.
These instances of exploitation not only tarnish the reputation of these bustling tourist hotspots but also undermine the trust and confidence of visitors.
Vietnam is among the world’s worst countries for sustainable tourism. A 2021 ranking by Euromonitor put the country in 96th place out of 99 countries, scoring low on sustainable tourism demand, transport, lodging, and environmental, social, and economic sustainability.
This didn’t come as a surprise, considering the thousands of tons of untreated trash piling up on major roads and beaches across Vietnam. An estimated 3.1 million metric tons of plastic waste is discharged on land in Vietnam annually.
The country is also considered one of the world’s largest contributors of mismanaged plastic waste, ranking 14th based on data from a study by Meijer et al. published in the Science Advances journal.
The smoggy atmospheres in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are also getting worse by the day. This does not just diminish the aesthetic appeal of these cities but also discourages tourists seeking clean and healthy environments.
Vietnam’s lack of concrete sustainability strategies for the tourism industry is a major deterring factor, especially as travelers have become increasingly conscious of sustainable and responsible tourism practices.
Missed marketing opportunities
Free roundtrip flights, hotel subsidies, and consumption vouchers — Asian countries are winning in their campaigns to revitalize tourism and stimulate visitor interest. Except for Vietnam.
The lack of robust marketing and promotional efforts for Vietnam’s tourism industry is apparent. A quick check on Vietnam’s official tourism website shows nothing to get excited about.
However, Vietnam’s promotional efforts seem relatively muted in comparison. The lack of proactive initiatives and targeted campaigns can potentially hinder the country’s ability to compete in the international tourism landscape.
The absence of government-backed incentives or collaborations with the private sector to boost tourism highlights a missed opportunity to position Vietnam as a competitive and desirable choice for global travelers.