Once upon the time in Indochina, there were two countries entwined in their destiny: both Laos and Vietnam fought a terrible war, half a century ago. Both experienced the victory of Communist parties. Both saw then their societies reshaped by socialist ideology. And finally in the nineties, both Laos and Vietnam opened slowly to economic market reforms and consequently to tourism. However, both countries’ evolution diverge from this point.
Over the last decade, Laos has fully embraced the idea that tourism development would be beneficial to Laotian people. New border crossings were opened to foreign travelers, more airports became international, visa conditions were simplified, and formalities were kept to a minimum. Today, crossing the border from Thailand to Laos does not take more than 30 minutes – excluding a traffic jam. For US$30, travelers get a 15-day visa allowing them to travel anywhere around the country. Citizens from Japan, Korea, Luxemburg, Mongolia, Russia, and Switzerland can even come visa-free. “We are looking to provide visa-free travel to more and more countries such as France, Germany, or the UK, our most important overseas market,” explaied Sounh Manivong, director general of the Planning and Cooperation Department at the Lao National Tourism Administration. All together, the three countries represent 60 percent of all European arrivals in 2008. Without giving a precise date, Manivong probably already his eyes on 2012 when Laos will play host to a “Visit Year” and also in 2013 where it will welcome the ASEAN Travel Forum.
Opening Laos is of crucial importance. The only southeast Asian country without any access to the sea is a compulsory point of transit between Thailand, Vietnam, and China. Laos has sped up infrastructure development over the last decade with a second bridge over the Mekong River and the upgrading of Savannakhet and Luang Prabang airports. Last year, the country celebrated its first rail link. “I acknowledge that our new rail track is highly symbolic, as it runs only three kilometers after the Friendship Bridge at the Lao-Thai border. But we are now in serious discussions with the French government to construct the next 20 kilometers up to Vientiane city center,” told Manivong.
Laos’ liberal tourism policy is paying dividends. In 2003, Laos only received 637,000 international travelers; in 2008, the number rose to 1.74 million. “We most probably should have received in 2009 some 1.8 million travelers, up by 3 percent” said Sounh Manivong. By 2015, Lao National Tourism Administration estimates that some 3.5 million tourists will be seduced by the country’s natural beauty and slow way of life.
By contrast, the pace of development is hectic in Vietnam. And so was also its tourism until 2008 when the country received 4.25 million travelers compared to 2.4 million in 2003. But in contrast to its Laotian neighbor, Vietnam still feels uncomfortable completely embracing an open tourism policy, as if the government is still unable to exchange a 70s old-style ideology for a more realistic vision of our contemporary world.
The most blatant example of the state’s malaise versus foreign travelers can be seen in its visa policy. Vietnam is – with Myanmar – the only country not able to deliver visa-on-arrival to most citizens of foreign countries, not to mention free visas. Countries entitled to enter Vietnam without a visa are mostly ASEAN members, Japan, Russia, and Scandinavian countries. But what is worrisome is the answer of the authorities when asked on reasons of not granting at least visa-on-arrival – ministers and high-ranking officials have only one word as a reply: SECURITY. If we understand that a country must monitor foreign arrivals to protect its citizens against terrorism or any other kind of threat, how do you explain that Vietnam is potentially more exposed as a destination than Australia, Indonesia, or the UAE?
Questioned about it, Mrs. Nguyen Thanh Huong, deputy director in charge of marketing at the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT), looks embarrassed but finally confesses that the visa issue is a problem to attract more visitors. “You cannot blame VNAT for this. They are very much aware of the difficulties of this inconvenient visa policy. They know, for example, that such visa restrictions completely kill last-minute holiday booking such as city-breaks. We pled many times with the government to come out with a more flexible approach,” said Mason Florence, executive director of Mekong Tourism, the office in charge of promoting the six countries bordered by the Mekong River.
Hanoi’s head of tourism and VNAT are prompt to point out that it is possible to do a visa application through a travel agency and then pick it up at international airports. But it still requests one to three days and it adds generally another 40 to 70 dollars to the official visa fee. Where is the advantage then?
Only four airports are opened today to international flights – Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Danang, and the special administrative zone of Phu Quoc Island. Every year, VNAT announces that Hue, Dalat, and Nha Trang airports – all destinations with an enormous potential for foreign tourists – will gain international entry status – so far, with no effect.
And it has already had consequences: Bangkok Airways pulled out from Bangkok-Danang a few years ago, as the city was too far away from Hue, the destination tourists really wanted to visit. An executive at the famed Sofitel Dalat – a marvelous French-style mansion belonging to the last Vietnamese Emperor – explained once that they were unable to sell week-end packages abroad due to accessibility. “We dream of having direct flights to Bangkok,” he said.
From 2003 to 2008, total foreign arrivals grew in Vietnam by 75 percent but were up by 173 percent for Laos and 203 percent for Cambodia, and a slowdown in tourist arrivals has been perceptible since 2008. After growing only by 0.6 percent in 2008, tourism collapsed last year by 11.3 percent, the worst performance among ASEAN countries.
Speaking at the ASEAN Travel Forum, Mrs. Nguyen Thanh Huong said that the promotional budget has been doubled this year to US$3 million and that a promotional campaign will run on television, as well as in important source markets such as France or Japan. The country hopes also to attract more visitors for the 1,000th anniversary of Hanoi next October. And finally, a new slogan, “Vietnam, just charming,” should replace “Vietnam, the Hidden Charm,” but it looks more like cosmetic surgery than real medicine. Vietnam tourism unfortunately might need another mediocre year for 2010 in order to maybe inflect government’s mindset.