Vietnam’s tourism faces over-tourism risks

SINGAPORE, 30 August 2019: Trend spotters view Vietnam as the tourism destination to watch closely as the country strides forward to become a top tourism player in the Mekong Region.

All the tell-tale signs of a runaway success are evident even the early warnings from critics, who point an accusing finger at beach pollution and overcrowding.

Is Vietnam heading for a roller coaster ride similar to one that continues to blight its neighbour Thailand, or can it apply checks and balances to secure steady, sustainable growth?

If you ask tourism officials in Vietnam, they repeat what all Thailand’s neighbours say, “we are learning from their mistakes.”

But do they, and in the long-run, will the architects that steer Vietnam’s economic boom have the courage to apply the brakes to save sensitive coastal or cultural heritage?

Sustainability is trending, and so is ‘over-tourism’, but the tough reality is we often talk about sustainability rather than applying it to our commercial ventures.

It becomes a word in the toolkit to fine-tune a sales pitch just as the travel industry embraced greenwashing as a response to climate change.     

While “sustainability” is a cool word in tourism circles, Vietnam, like its neighbours, talks up tourist arrivals trends. In 2018, the country welcomed 15.5 million. This year it is heading for 18 million and 20 million in 2020. Within a decade, at the present growth rates, it will be neck-and-neck in a race with Thailand.

So no surprises if the rush to build more hotel rooms dominates the conversation. If you check the latest updates on where new hotels are under construction in the Asia-Pacific, Vietnam is right up there with leader China.  

In the most recent STR report on nations delivering the biggest pipeline of hotels under construction,  Vietnam takes third place, and that is for the entire Asia-Pacific region.

 According to STR, there are 29,625 rooms under construction in Vietnam an increase of 29.4% year-on-year. It’s the runner up to China and Japan and ahead of Indonesia and India, all nations that have much larger populations and economies.

Vietnam’s ranking in the STR report says a good deal about investor confidence in the country’s tourism industry. On the inbound side, its popularity grows with international tourists and long-stay or retirees as authorities ease stay rules.  But a thriving tourism industry also depends on outbound travel and Vietnam is progressing by leaps and bounds, a trend that encourages more airlines to serve its gateway cities.

This two-way traffic will encourage more flights to the three gateway cities Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Danang while beach destinations are also benefiting from new services notably to Phu Quoc Island, Nha Trang and Halong Bay.

Phu Quoc, one of the up-and-coming islands at the southern tip of Vietnam, opened its international airport only seven years ago and already faces tourist overcrowding.

Ha Long Bay located in the north of the country, east of Hanoi, recently opened a new airport cutting hours off the travel time to the World Heritage destination, but it accelerates over-tourism, too.

Last June, the country’s deputy prime minister Trinh Dinh Dung warned the real estate sector to be wary. The market bubble might burst.

Warnings also surface that over-tourism could irreparably damage cultural destinations that have UNESCO World Heritage status.

Commenting on combating the negative impacts a high ranking Vietnam National Administration of Tourism official said: “Over-tourism must be considered as an urgent threat. We have to work with domestic agencies to ensure that we do not develop too fast. We need to be responsible.”

But being responsible doesn’t come naturally to an industry that has exploited natural assets for commercial gain for decades. Old habits die hard.  It takes a change of mindset at every level. That includes the travel media so often turning a blind eye to plain realities for the sake of a few advertising dollars or just a pat on the back from powerful old pals.