Coronavirus: Vietnamese travellers get bargain holidays as Hanoi tries to revive tourism

Vietnamese tourists pose for photos on the The Huc bridge at Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi, on May 18, 2020.
Vietnamese tourists pose for photos on the The Huc bridge at Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi, on May 18, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Ms Hoang Ngoc Dong Phuong, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, plans to 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 says, 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 blocks in South-east Asia in trying to revive its tourism industry.

The government last week 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. 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 April 22.

Dalat, the highland getaway particularly popular with residents of Ho Chi Minh City, came alive over the weekend 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 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.

 
 
 

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 S$21 billion. But 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 neigbouring 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 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 won't 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."