Coronavirus pandemic

Bargain holidays for Vietnamese as focus turns to domestic tourism

Left: People enjoying a drink at the Bia Hoi Corner in Hanoi's old quarter on Friday. The government this month flagged off a "Vietnamese people travel to Vietnam destinations" campaign.
Above: People enjoying a drink at the Bia Hoi Corner in Hanoi's old quarter on Friday. The government this month flagged off a "Vietnamese people travel to Vietnam destinations" campaign. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Ms Hoang Ngoc Dong Phuong, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, will take at least five holidays around Vietnam from now to September.

"This weekend, I'm going to Vung Tau city. At the end of the month, I'm going to Nha Trang," she told The Straits Times last week, ticking off her list of seaside haunts. After that, the 33-year-old will travel to the former imperial capital of Hue, before heading up north to the mountain town of Sapa.

"Basically, the deals are very, very good," she said, referring to travel offers being dangled to entice locals to travel domestically.

Having contained the coronavirus pandemic so far, Vietnam is now first off the block in South-east Asia in trying to revive its tourism industry.

The government earlier this month flagged off a "Vietnamese people travel to Vietnam destinations" campaign until the end of the year. Airlines, travel agencies and resorts are offering discounts of about 50 per cent or more to fill up resorts and restaurants bereft of guests while incoming flights are still banned. The local authorities have slashed or even waived entry fees to popular destinations like Halong Bay.

"With a population of more than 97 million people, and an increasing proportion of middle class, Vietnam has a domestic tourism market with huge potential," Mr Vu The Binh, vice-chairman of the Vietnam Tourism Association, told The Straits Times.

Domestic tourism will also help spur foreign travellers' confidence to visit Vietnam, he said.

Bargain hunters have swooped in, eager to make up for the weeks cooped up indoors during a nationwide lockdown that ended on April 22.

Dalat, the highland getaway particularly popular with residents of Ho Chi Minh City, came alive as urbanites like Ms Tu Hong An flocked there.

"With the lockdown eased, I thought I should go somewhere," said the property consultant, who eventually spent the mid-May weekend at a Dalat yoga retreat.

People have not abandoned precautions, as seen on the packed flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat. "Everyone was wearing a mask. It was extremely quiet on the plane as no one talked," Ms An said.

  • 6-12%

  • Estimated portion tourism contributes to Vietnam's gross domestic product.

Vietnam has not reported any case of community transmission in more than a month.

While nearby Thailand - now seeing a single-digit daily increase in Covid-19 infections - has kept a lid on nightlife since mid-March and forced airlines and bus companies to keep seats empty to enforce safe distancing, Vietnam has reopened bars and massage parlours and lifted the empty-seat requirement on public transport.

Tourism is estimated to contribute 6 per cent to 12 per cent to Vietnam's gross domestic product.

"While international tourism is more visible, with the exception of small island economies, domestic tourism is always more valuable economically than international tourism," said Dr Nuno Ribeiro, senior lecturer in tourism at RMIT University (Vietnam).

Local tourists made up 85 million of the 103 million travellers in Vietnam last year and spent the equivalent of $21 billion. However, domestic tourists spend on average about half as much as their foreign counterparts, according to official statistics.

A tourism revival in Vietnam may help draw tourists to neighbouring countries too, said Dr Ribeiro.

But tourism companies say they will need to make longer-term adjustments if international travel is not restored next year.

"Domestic tourism has not reached its full potential," said Mr Vu Dinh Quan, general director of Ho Chi Minh City-based travel agency BenThanh Tourist.

If a vaccine is not available by the first quarter of next year, the tourism industry will adapt to serve local travellers and operators will have to learn how to survive on lower margins, he said.

"In general, there will be a lot of obstacles ahead, but Vietnam tourism will stay alive."

Ms Phuong, meanwhile, is conscious that her bargain holidays will not be around forever.

"I like discounts, but I can see that things are really difficult now for the restaurants and hotels," she said. "We need people to come back to Vietnam and lift the economy."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2020, with the headline Bargain holidays for Vietnamese as focus turns to domestic tourism. Subscribe