Story: Minh Quan
Photos: Minh Quan, Nhu Ngoc, Ngoc Thanh, Quang Ngoc

As other countries in the region have welcomed back international tourists or announced their plans to do so, Vietnam must not risk falling behind in the race to restore “the smoke-free industry”

After two years of being crippled by the Covid-19 pandemic, the tourism industry finally has a chance to recover. Even a single decision can significantly impact the race to attract visitors. The pandemic has posed significant challenges but also opened new opportunities for Vietnam to change its world tourism ranking, especially when compared to regional competitors.

In early November 2021, the Government officially approved a pilot roadmap for welcoming international tourists back to Vietnam, in which Danang, Kien Giang, Khanh Hoa, Quang Nam, and Quang Ninh will be the first destinations allowed to receive foreign visitors during Phase 1.

Three-phase pilot plan: tourists can stay up to three months

According to the roadmap proposed by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, the tourism reopening will be piloted in three phases.

Phase 1 (from November 2021) allows international tourists on package tour programs, charters, and commercial flights to visit select sites and tourism facilities in Phu Quoc (Kien Giang), Khanh Hoa, Quang Nam, Danang, and Quang Ninh.

Phase 2 (from January 2022) will add a few more places and connect destinations via charters and regular international commercial flights. Tourists who complete their seven-day-tour in the first destination can participate in other programs, allowing them to visit multiple destinations in the five localities of Phase 1. Additional destinations will be allowed if those areas meet the conditions and apply to welcome international tourists.

Phase 3 will fully re-open all tourism activities for international travelers. The start of this phase will depend on the actual situation and a review of the results of the first two phases.

Noticeably, for all three phases, tour programs designed for tourism sites and facilities approved by local governments allow for stays of up to 90 days. After completing a tour program of at least seven days, tourists who wish to stay in Vietnam to visit relatives can register with tour operators to receive procedural support when traveling to their relatives’ homes. Under the current regulations, monitoring of health symptoms is also required.

A pilot plan to welcome international tourists to Phu Quoc was first proposed in early June 2021 but was postponed multiple times due to the unpredictable nature of the Covid-19 fourth wave.

This time is different. Not only has the government approved these five localities to reopen to international tourists but Ho Chi Minh City – the largest tourism hub in the country – is also stepping up efforts to finish a draft plan for welcoming back visitors. This further reflects the anxiety of tourism businesses, which strongly believe that pilot plans should not be delayed any longer. Without immediate action, Vietnam, which is already behind other countries in terms of inbound tourist intakes, will face greater difficulties in attracting foreign travelers.

The Vietnam Economic Update Report by HSBC Bank indicated that re-opening the border and reviving the tourism sector have become hot topics in ASEAN countries. Though not as ambitious as the re-opening plans of neighboring countries, Vietnam’s decision to welcome back tourists to five destinations in November 2021 without compulsory quarantine is garnering enthusiastic support from fully-vaccinated tourists.

Full support from both businesses and the market

Mr. Sinasi Isbir, Managing Director of Asian Dreams Touristik (Germany), reported welcoming  over 2,000 tourists to Thailand since July 2021, when Thailand reopened its border to international tourists. From November, fully-vaccinated tourists coming to Thailand need only quarantine for one night in a hotel until they receive their PCR test results. This procedure is proving effective and popular with tourists. As a result, Asian Dreams Touristik’s tour bookings have increased dramatically, with numbers sometimes even higher than before the pandemic.

Has Vietnam opened to German tourists yet?” We are receiving many questions from clients expressing hopes to visit Vietnam. Before the pandemic, Vietnam was our fastest-growing market and we set a target of receiving around 5,000 German tourists by 2022. However, that doesn’t seem possible now as tourists are subjected to a seven-day quarantine. I hope Vietnam will soon fully reopen its borders; otherwise, tourists may shift their interest to Thailand or other countries,” said Mr. Isbir.

Mr. Nguyen Huu Y Yen, CEO of Saigontourist Travel Service, one of the tour operators designated to provide Phu Quoc tours for international tourists, commented that it is never too late to open the international market. As Vietnam begins to control the pandemic, the pilot plan to welcome tourists back will be a great opportunity to kickstart the tourist season at the end of 2021 and in 2022.

Many businesses are now ready to organize tours and are serving their first groups of international travelers coming to Phu Quoc thanks to thorough preparations and planning made several months ago, as well as strong relationships with local partners. We also established partnerships with foreign companies and businesses operating in the aviation industry to develop tailored products for each market segment,” said Mr. Yen.

From another perspective, Mr. Huynh Van Son, CEO of Sea Star International Travel Joint Stock Company, stressed the importance of how international travel agencies respond to Vietnam’s plans to welcome tourists. Will they trust the government’s plan and proceed to offer charter tours to Phu Quoc and other destinations across the country?

Along with the preparations made by businesses and the re-opening of domestic destinations, other pressing questions concerning marketing campaigns, surveys, and promotions must be answered so that once the country is fully open, travel agencies can predict the number of arrivals, tourists’ needs, and the customer segments willing to come to Vietnam,” said Mr. Son.

Airlines are anxious to recover

In the latest document submitted to the Ministry of Transportation, the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam has proposed a plan to arrange regular international flights carrying passengers into Vietnam. According to this plan, the aviation industry will gradually resume international flight routes in four stages, with Stage 1 piloting flights to localities such as Kien Giang, Khanh Hoa, Quang Ninh, Danang, and Quang Nam.

All airlines are currently looking forward to operating regular international flights. Vietnam Airlines is currently operating regular commercial flights to Australia, Japan, Korea, and other places in Europe. Inbound flights are currently limited to government charter flights or repatriation flights.

Experts from Vietnam HSBC Bank remarked that efforts to reconnect international flights are crucial to boosting tourism. Even when quarantine regulations have been eased out, it will take the aviation industry a long time to reach pre-pandemic levels. It’s a positive sign, however, that Vietnam has quickly accepted the vaccine certification of 72 countries; and that airlines are planning new flight routes to attract new tourist markets. From November 2021, Vietnam Airlines will operate its first regular direct flights to the US.

Mr. Dang Anh Tuan, Director of Vietnam Airlines’ Communication Department, commented that delaying the re-opening of regular international flights routes any further would mean missing opportunities to increase our competitiveness, as many neighboring countries have opened their borders. Massive revenues from markets such as Japan, Taiwan (China), and Korea, where the pandemic has been brought under control, are another reason to prioritize the relaunch of international routes.

Once routes to key markets are established, itineraries to other secondary markets can be considered based on each country’s pandemic situation. Overall, the reopening plan for international routes can be implemented in phases and based on the conditions of each market, but it needs to be done quickly to avoid market disruption, resulting in many lost opportunities,” said Mr. Dang Anh Tuan.