Vietnam’s strategy to “live with the virus” has given the whole nation, and especially the tourism industry, a boost in recent months. And after two years of unceasing battle against COVID-19, the announcement of the return of international arrivals starting March 15 is an important step toward the recovery process.
Since the long-awaited reopening was officially announced by the government last week, “an increase in hotel bookings has started to form, which is a very positive sign for the recovery of the travel and tourism industry,” said Apple Thy Huynh, country manager of Traveloka, the travel and lifestyle app.
No one in the tourism industry is predicting that tourism will return to 2019 levels this year, and many estimate that it will take two to four years. But for the hotels, resorts, and tour companies that have survived after a crushing two years for the industry, they are slowly cranking back up.
EXO Travel, a destination management company operating in several locations in Southeast Asia, noticed an increase in attention toward Vietnam in the past two weeks. “However to convert into bookings, especially for 2022 business, our partners and travelers need to see more clarity and certainty in entry requirements, visa policies, and other protocols to be confident to promote our destination,” said Yen Nguyen, inbound director and acting general manager. “For us, the workload is still manageable, and even if it’s higher we have a solid back-up as our ex-colleagues are ready to be back to work anytime.”
Onetrip Vietnam, a social experience company offering package tours connecting local guides with travelers, is not booking Vietnam tours just yet. Its founder Thu Nguyen said he is waiting for a definitive response from the Ministry of Tourism about protocols. The resumption of normal activities as well as the impact of the long Tet holiday have caused a surge in new daily coronavirus infections. Over 60,000 new cases were recorded on Wednesday, per the Ministry of Health. Vietnamese authorities are still working on further details about the March 15 entry requirements, but so far, international travelers are required to undergo COVID-19 antigen testing upon arrival and 24-hour isolation. Each must also download at least one COVID-19 app and should keep it active while in the country.
“We’ll wait until all services can be confirmed and then we will start taking bookings, hopefully very soon in early March,” Thu said.
In the meantime, having a confirmed March 15 date, Thu and his team can now begin working with local transportation providers and licensed tour guides to make sure everything’s all set.
“Our efforts are not only to deliver the Onetrip experiences that we were known for but also to incorporate what we have learned over the last two years to make our local experiences even better, more sustainable,” he said.
Thu, who also runs Christina’s Hotel & Café, believes Vietnam will be prepared to welcome back foreign visitors in the coming months. “It may seem a bit overly strict at first, such as the one-day isolation requirement for example, but we think it’s the right way to ease into the reopening and make sure our infrastructure has time to adjust,” he said.
Despite the revenue loss, unemployment, bankruptcy and budget deficits brought by the global pandemic, a number of tourism companies managed to survive.
At Life’s a Beach in Quy Nhon, owner Steve Knight had to close one of his beachside locations with a backpacker dorm during the pandemic, but business has picked up with more domestic guests and was busy during Tet.
“I don't think after March we will have lots of international visitors because people don’t have lots of money,” he said. “So there probably won’t be a huge influx at least until the end of the year. I'd say it’s more of a slow burn, and maybe by July or August we’ll start to see a bit more visitors coming.”
Hai Nguyen, whose tourism businesses in Phong Nha included jungle treks and a stake in a backpacker hostel, doesn’t see the industry fully recovering for at least two to three years.
The pandemic closed Hai’s Eco Tours, the hostel, and his two restaurants. His customers were nearly all foreigners. “We basically got frozen,” he said.
If enough tourists come back this year, he can reopen his restaurants quickly, but he said he’ll hold off on the jungle treks till next year, wary that another coronavirus variant or some other unknown might derail the reopening.
“I don’t want to hire a lot of people and then we don’t have enough guests for them,” Hai said.
The town in North-Central Vietnam has been dead for two years. Hai spent that time building an eco-resort of a dozen villas, which he plans to open this summer for both domestic and foreign guests.
“We hope we’re going to be OK this year, we hope,” he said.
Geared up even before the reopening announcement
Marie-Anne Palces, director of product and marketing at Luxperia DMC, is confident that the COVID-19 measurements and procedures the Vietnamese government carried out in the past will still be firmly in place once the borders reopen. “Consequently, because of the increase in domestic tourism, the industry across all levels has already had to implement strict COVID-19 and social distancing measures,” she said.
Marie-Anne and her team, whose travel brand links other destination management companies in destinations around the world, shifted their focus to domestic travel when the pandemic hit the country. Thanks to their business model, they were able to remain fully operational and agile throughout the last two years, putting them in an excellent position to shift gears come March.
When Vietnam suspended the entry of all foreigners in March 2020, EXO Travel spent the months to come restructuring to make sure the business could survive and maintain the core to grow back. “Our teams have been in constant contact with our overseas partners to assist with whatever they need regarding prices, products, country updates,” Yen said. “We also upgraded our system, invested in technology and made sure we optimized our resources and are ready to restart our operation.”
Yen said that health protocols are a “hot topic” in the sector. But considering the country’s high vaccination rate and how the past surges in cases were resolved, she hopes the procedures for the international visitors won’t be that complex.
Apple of Traveloka believes strict implementation of health protocols has become a priority for everyone, not only for the industry players but also for the tourists.
Their new CleanAccommodation feature, which has over 100 hotel partners in Vietnam, serves as an indicator for accommodation partners who have followed hygiene protocols under World Health Organization standards.
‘Vietnam has never been more ready for international travelers’
“Speaking solely on Vietnam, the country was among the first to fully shut its borders in Southeast Asia and we also have one of the highest double-dose vaccination rates of any country in the world,” said Luxperia’s Marie-Anne. “From a safety perspective, this speaks volumes into the priority the government has given to protecting the country and its people.”
One change in tourist behavior during the pandemic is they aren’t booking trips so far in advance, because of so many uncertainties. Anticipating this, Apple said Traveloka offers zero-fee cancellation policies or flight schedule changes.
Apart from that, Apple and her team noticed a shift in the factors affecting customers' decisions. “They prioritize hygiene over price,” she said.
From Thu’s perspective, “Vietnam has never been more ready for international travelers from a health safety standpoint.” The fact that the country has essentially gotten all of its eligible citizens fully vaccinated is a clear safety advantage, he said.
Yen of EXO Travel said, “If you still have doubts, travel with a reputable travel agent so they will take care of you no matter what happens on the ground in a country far from home.”
Patrick Scott and Trang Vũ contributed to this report.