We are hospitable, but we can also be annoying

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Being a nuisance to visitors is a silent threat facing Vietnam’s tourism industry, but not much is being done about it.

Nguyen Tien Dat

Nguyen Tien Dat

Just because tourists don’t file complaints doesn’t mean they are satisfied with their experience in Vietnam. We know that many never bother to return, and we only have our irresponsibility and ignorance to blame.

Throughout the last 20 years I have worked in the aviation and tourism industry in our country, I’ve witnessed many issues troubling tourists and travelers – traffic jams, dirty streets, unsanitary food, and so on.

But today, I want to talk about one issue in particular that is shackling our tourism industry and could potentially cripple it forever.

I’m talking about how our tourists are literally stalked in every corner by vendors and beggars, and how we force overpriced products on them, praying on their naivety and lack of knowledge about Vietnamese culture and customs.

Take any mountainous area that has tourism potential. A bunch of kids and vendors follow you at every step, trying to sell you something. Even taking pictures might cost you money.

Or take some of Vietnam’s most beautiful beach towns like Da Nang or Nha Trang. The fact that restaurants in areas popular with tourists often hike up their prices for foreigners is nothing new to a seasoned traveler. Authorities have tried to crackdown on this practice, but the problem persists.

Even the airport is not a safe zone. There have been so many cases where tourists are greeted by taxi drivers upon arrival, saying they have been assigned to receive them. Only later do they realize that they have been scammed and forced to pay more than $100 for a short taxi trip.

Foreigners who know little of Vietnamese streets or language are especially vulnerable to these tactics. It’s no coincidence that they are some of the most frequently targeted victims of thieves and robbers in broad daylight.

The situation has been like this for years. This is why despite having a rich culture and great scenic beauty, Vietnam fails to attract many visitors to return to the country.

As tour organizers, we can’t solve this problem on our own. The responsibility to solve it also rests on our officials’ shoulders. But, unfortunately, the best response they can muster is a few apologies from some big shots on television. When taxis scam tourists, the relevant ministry should be held responsible. When vendors stalk customers, the police have to step in; neither tour guides nor tour agencies can tackle this problem effectively.

Cyclo drivers wait for tourists at the site of the former imperial citadel in Hue, central Vietnam. Photo by AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Cyclo drivers wait for tourists at the site of the former imperial citadel in Hue, central Vietnam. Photo by AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Ignorance is not bliss

For all the rhetoric that we hear about tourism being identified as a key sector, we are showing irresponsibility and ignorance that will hurt us in the long run.

A traveler who visits Vietnam this year but doesn’t come back the next might not be a big problem now, but if it keeps happening for the next five or 10 years, the results can be devastating.

Many foreigners find it hard to report their dismay to authorities because of language barriers, and this makes some officials think that everything is okay. These people find it easy to disregard or dismiss issues by saying they have never received any actual complaint.

What we need to do right now is to create a grading system for our provinces to assess how well they are managing to develop their tourism scene. The grading can be done by our own tourists, tour agencies and tourism experts, and these results should be compiled digitally. It should be easy to do. A quick survey can be provided by tour agencies and be completed online anytime, anywhere.

Numbers don’t lie. This grading system may finally put an end to our reliance on data like number of tourists visited or Gross Domestic Product contribution to determine how effective our tourism industry is. Some categories I would like to see included are: how well order and security are maintained for tourists; how clean is the environment; and how developed is the infrastructure.

I grew up on one of the busiest streets in Hanoi for tourists, and I’ve seen things that would make no traveler want to return here.

It’s time we put an end to that. Now.

*Nguyen Tien Dat is a Vietnamese businessman. The opinions expressed are his own.

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