The team from Vietnam Airlines were among the star attractions for ITE 2015
Breaking Travel News reporter Alice McKeown was invited to attend the 11th annual International Travel Expo Ho Chi Minh City.
Now in its 11th year, the Expo is Vietnam’s largest and most popular tourism trade event, welcoming more than 20,000 international, regional, local travel professionals and buyers at the Saigon Exhibitions and Convention Centre.
ITE highlights the potential of Vietnam’s travel industry; the country boasts 3000 kilometres of coastline, beautiful natural landscapes and a rich cultural heritage, creating a strong base for domestic and international tourism.
Vietnam’s spectacular Ha Long Bay was recently voted by BBC Earth as “the second among the 15 most amazing landforms,” and the country’s street food is rated as some of the best globally.
Vietnam’s travel and tourism sector has played an important role in the country’s remarkable economic transformation over the past two decades.
In the mid-1980s, Vietnam was one of the world’s poorest countries, with per capita income of $100.
By the end of 2014, and Vietnam had established itself as one of the fastest-growing economies globally, with per capita income of $2,000.
Speaking on behalf of Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (one of ITE’s organisers) Mary McKeon highlighted how crucial the travel industry is to Vietnam’s economy, contributing 5.7 per cent of the country’s GDP, and supporting more than half a million jobs, or 2.4 per cent of the total workforce.
Over the past year, however, Vietnam‘s tourism sector has come up against a problem, experiencing a noticeable lull in its international visitor numbers.
Arrivals between Jan-Aug 2015 dropped by 7.5 per cent compared to the same period in 2014.
The fall-out from anti-China protests over oil rigging in 2014, coupled with the sharp drop of the Russian rouble, has led to tourist arrivals from China and Russia - two important source markets for Vietnam - dropping.
Visitors from European countries have also decreased, causing widespread concern among the tourism industry.
Forced to take swift action, Vietnam’s government tackled one issue quickly - that of troublesome visa requirements for European travellers.
In June 2015, a visa exemption was implemented for nationals of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, allowing leisure and business travellers to enter Vietnam for a stay of up to 15 days.
It’s too early to identify whether the waiver will significantly stimulate international arrivals, but it’s a marker of the government’s intent to promote and support the tourism industry more seriously.
So what next for the future of Vietnam’s tourism?
Well the outlook for the country’s domestic market is certainly a strong one, with more than 10.2 per cent growth over the past decade.
The Vietnamese population is becoming progressively mobile; rates of car and motorbike ownership are increasing, and subsided domestic flights allow for swift travel between the north and south portions of the country.
On the other hand, the dwindling international visitor market will require careful evaluation over the next few years, and presents a complex problem for VNAT.
It’s perhaps unfair to directly compare Thailand and Vietnam’s tourism markets given the latter’s relative immaturity, but there is one clear difference between the two countries: the number of returning visitors.
Thailand has a purported return rate of 50 per cent, compared to Vietnam’s six per cent.
In the past, there has perhaps been the perception that Vietnam isn’t ‘serious’ about tourism; international travellers flagged issues around complex visa entry requirements, poor transport infrastructure, and a lack of a welcoming attitude amongst locals.
The country may be home to some of the world’s best cuisine, but many visitors exited with a bitter taste in their mouths.
VNAT will be looking to counter this view, and cultivate Vietnam as a destination which is worthy of repeat visits from the high-spending traveller.
If Vietnam is to succeed in developing a sustainable and long-term international tourism industry, this will be critical.
The next few years will be an important marker.
Vietnam certainly has ambitious targets for its future tourism strategy; by 2020 the country hopes to attract 10.5 million annual international visitors, with overall tourism revenue contributing six-to-seven per cent of GDP.
There is also a keen awareness of the need to work with its neighbours Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, to collectively bring more visitors to the region, and integrate their tourism industries.
Collaboration and unity was one of the key themes from this year’s exhibition, highlighted by the motto ‘Five Countries – One Destination’.
As part of this cross-border unity, lesser-known regions such as Laos benefit from the greater exposure among international visitors, and marketing the area as ‘one region’ helps to increase inter-border travel amongst the countries, and reduce difficulties around visa access.
ITE has shown that Vietnam is at something of a crossroads.
The country’s domestic tourism industry is booming, and set to enjoy increased growth over the next few years.
The international tourism market is more troublesome, and will require careful massage from the government if it is to realise its full potential.
Relaxing visa entry requirements is certainly a step in the right direction, but Vietnam must showcase itself as a destination which truly welcomes foreign visitors, and makes them eager to return for more.
To find out more about visiting Vietnam head over to the official website of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism.