Monday, 24 February 2014

A Voice from Vietnam

Vietnam tourism’s image crisis

Vietnam tourism faces an image crisis due to a lack of a vision, PR and marketing. The country’s suppliers such as hotels, cruise and tour operators, aim at quality tourism but its official bodies and VNAT seem to focus on increasing the numbers of visitors. The private sector finds it hard to promote luxury tourism and Vietnam because of the lack of opportunities, and therefore lags behind competitors such as Thailand and Malaysia.

Writer Pham Ha is the founder and CEO of Luxury Travel Ltd , Vietnam’s first luxury tour operator.

Vietnam’s rise as a luxury tourism destination
Luxury travel means different things to different people but nowadays it is as much about the experience as about the standard of accommodation. It is also about having exclusive access or meeting people. Also it is about the highest levels of service from start to finish.

Vietnam offers a magical mix of tropical beaches, post-colonial charm, a string of world heritage sites, stunning inland scenery, world-renowned cuisine and a home-grown flair for hospitality. According to travel industry insiders and travel publications, Vietnam is now one of the top ten destinations in Asia, with luxury the fastest-growing segment.

Vietnam is now tempting luxury travelers with new boutique hotels, experiences and tours, such as flying to Halong Bay from Hanoi by helicopter. Vietnam’s tourism infrastructure has improved dramatically and with iconic colonial properties like the Sofitel Legend Metropole in Hanoi, a fast-growing list of modern luxury and spa destinations and recently opened golf courses, the launch of luxury yacht and river cruise services ensure stress-free journeys away from the busy roads. Such improvements account for the country’s recent growth in popularity.

The next upcoming destination in Vietnam is the archipelago of Con Dao with its intimate villa resort and undeveloped beaches. The beach town of NhaTrang is a popular beach haven for holidaymakers, and now just 90 minutes north of Cam Ranh Airport is Vinh Hy Bay where the Amanoi, the latest property by Aman Resorts, is located on a secluded beach.

These few places alone show that Vietnam has so much to offer upscale travellers, but I do not see any emphasis on the luxury market in the country’s long-term planning. Vietnam is still a relative travel bargain, even for those who don’t normally concern themselves with cost. Travelers on a high-end itinerary can expect to pay from $3,000 to $3,500 per person for a seven-day tour, although many are priced at more than $1,000 per day, per traveler.

What are the requirements of luxury travellers?
Luxury travellers are usually FITs, not group travellers, and they demand personal service. They are generally experienced, informed, well-traveled and adventurous, but with an eye for value for money. The age range is varied, some younger people with money but less time, and older travellers who have both time and money.

There has never been a better time to promote travel to Vietnam because of the wide selection of deluxe hotels, the country’s tradition of excellent service, the improvement of the infrastructure as well as ease of access with an ever increasing number of airlines now flying to both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

The ‘can do’ attitude of the Vietnamese means that itineraries can be designed to meet the tastes and budget of all travelers whether they want to stay in international-standard hotels or intimate, stylish boutique hotels; explore in a limo or experience the country up close on the back of a Minsk motorbike; cruise Halong Bay or, for those short of time, fly over in a helicopter; and dine in smart international restaurants or savour the delicate flavours of Vietnamese food in refined colonial villas.

Image Crisis
It is strange that many people still associate Vietnam with a war after many year of reunification. This clearly means that Vietnam does not promote its image as a peaceful country very well and loses out on potential business, in particular from long-haul destinations.

Some people think Vietnam is a very poor destination, only suitable for backpackers, and it is hard to convince them that Vietnam has many quality tourism products, world-class beaches and fine cuisine. But all the while VNAT focuses on the number of tourists and not encouraging high-spending travelers then the country will continue to have an image crisis.

It is crucial that VNAT creates a brand that positions Vietnam as a destination for discerning travellers. At the moment many people come to Vietnam because they have received good reports from friends and relatives who have already visited, not because of a meaningful marketing campaign.

If VNAT positions Vietnam as a cultural destination, travelerswill only visit once, but if we promote ourselves as a holiday destination with beautiful beaches, fun activities, entertainment, shopping, new products, an improving infrastructure, and new destinations opening every year, holidaymakers will come back again and again.

We are unable to attract more cruises passengers if our seaports are poor with no specific facilities for travelers. Airports must provide VIP services on the ground so that private jets and more luxury airlines fly here. Hotel classifications do not meet expectations and damage the image of high-end tourism in Vietnam. These negatives are because VNAT does not focus on the niche luxury market like our competitors in Thailand and Malaysia.

Vietnam has no clear message, no strong focus on products or unique selling propositions and at trade shows VNAT staff are not professionals, some of them not able to speak English.

Thailand has launched a quality tourism campaign aiming to strengthen Thailand’s tourism by highlighting niche markets: ecotourism, golf, weddings and honeymoons, and health and wellness at the 12th Thailand Travel Mart. At the same time, TAT has launched to promote luxury tourism products and services.

Malaysia is very creative in promoting Malaysia with experienced, professional, passionate staff. They promote Luxury Malaysia online, through social media and at trade shows very effectively. As a result high-end tourism to Malaysia has increased.

VNAT must create a luxury travel department and change the way they promote tourism, bringing in professionals who can talk the language of premium travel sellers.

Support needed
Without government guidance and vision, local private tour companies, such as Luxury Travel, are working alone. On our own it is difficult to attract high-end travelers to Vietnam through tour operators and travel agencies overseas.

Because of the lack of a cohesive marketing campaign, it is hard for us to convince travel professionals to sell Vietnam as a quality holiday destination. At Luxury Travel we have to educate them, offer them fam trips to experience the country before they sell to their sophisticated clients, and guarantee 100% satisfaction or their money back.

Companies such as ourselves need the support of VNAT to market Vietnam, and VNAT needs to work with the travel professionals throughout the country to understand the market and its potential and get the right message out.

Huge potential market
According to ILTM, 3% of high spending tourists account for 20% of total tourism expenditure. This market cannot be overlooked. What are the practical implications for Vietnam tourism and how can it position itself to make the best out of it? How can we capture this market, a market that is impervious to recession.

Lack of public relations and marketing
With its many sites and range of high-end accommodation, Vietnam offers the potential for luxury tourism. But although demand has been growing, mostly among foreigners, challenges such as a lack of infrastructure and marketing still limit high-end travelling.

We should examine the success stories of Thailand and Malaysia. Vietnam can meet the demands of the luxury market with ease as we have the product, something we have been doing at Luxury Travel since 2004, but without proper PR and marketing Vietnam will still find itself struggling to attract more high spenders.

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