Interview with Mr. Vu The Binh

Director of Travel Department,  Vietnam National Administration of Tourism

Special Note:  The interviewer and would like to express it's sincere appreciation for the Assistance of Vietnam Flying Travel - VFD - in Hanoi, Vietnam who assisted in arranging the interview and in
translation and facilitation.  VFD has provided full travel services to business travelers

Question 1: First, thank you for agreeing to this interview with  The Year of the Rooster has just commenced.  Looking back at last year and looking forward to the current year, how has Vietnam’s tourism developed and do you see a bright year ahead and if so, what sorts of increases in tourist arrivals are you expecting?

Answer:  2004 was a successful year for Vietnam Tourism. The number of International tourists increased 20.5% against 2003. Other indicators, such as national income from  tourism, spending by tourists, the duration of stay of tourists were higher than past years. Although tourism was hit hard by the bird flu in the first months of the year, in the later months, the number of tourists made a quick comeback, thus creating a fairly stable growth of tourism for Vietnam.

In the first Quarter of 2005, Vietnam saw a high growth rate in tourism, with international tourists increased by 22 per cent against the same period in 2004, with a total of more than 870,000. I am confident that 2005 will witness a good success for Vietnam tourism, providing a good impetus  for Vietnam tourism in the 2006-2010 period.

Question 2:  In 2003, what was the total number of international tourists and what was the breakdown between say Europe, the U.S., Asia and other areas?  Which country in Asia is the biggest source of tourists and which areas of the world do you see the most potential for further tourist growth?

Answer:  The total figure of international tourists to Vietnam in 2004 was 2,930,000.  Breakdown of this was as follows:

  • 27% from China
  • 26% from North Asian countries
  • 11% from ASEAN countries
  • 12% from Europe, and
  • 11% from North America

China accounts for the largest proportion of tourists to Vietnam, with 778,431. Most Chinese tourists arrived in Vietnam through land border crossings. 

For the future, the region with largest tourism potential is the Asia-Pacific.

Question 3: Vietnam is a very diverse country with mountains, a long sea coast, major rivers like the Mekong and Red River plus a host of ethnic minorities.  Your Ministry has the responsibility to promote this diversity and beauty, what resources in terms of overseas offices, number of employees and a yearly budget does your organization have and how does this affect the extent of your marketing?

Answer:  The ecological diversity, the richness in natural landscapes and the multi-ethnic culture of Vietnam form a strong point of Vietnam tourism. To take Vietnam to the World and to bring the World to Vietnam, apart from efforts of the Administration of Tourism at the Central as well as local levels, of tourist companies across the country, of representative offices overseas (mainly representatives of companies), special attention of the State, in the form of enabling tourist policies and annual budge allocation of USD 1.3 to USD 1.5 M to the National Administration of Tourism for tourism promotion, is required. The National Administration of Tourism has launched a series of promotion drives in various key markets in the world. Building on the experience of those promotion events, marketing skills of the National Administration of Tourism have been enhanced and have brought about tangible results, deepening the understanding of Vietnam by the world and thus resulting in more and more tourists visiting Vietnam. 

Question 4: Hotels and other infrastructure in the North outside the major cities, used to be rather limited.  This is changing fast.  Further, Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, particularly in the North in the Dien Bien Phu region and in Sapa and its surrounding area are charming and quite picturesque.  Is your Ministry trying to further develop tourism in these areas and is it also taking into consideration the protection of these minorities and of their culture and way of life?

Answer:  Ecological and cultural tourism is usually linked with ethnic minority groups and with nature. Therefore, these forms of tourism are indispensable in the promotional drives of the Administration of Tourism at all levels and of travel companies. To satisfy the needs for entertainment and study of tourists, Vietnam has paid attention to preserving the nature, forests, mountains, restoring and upgrading tourist infrastructure, protecting the cultural identity and lifestyle of the ethnic groups, including the ethnic minorities in Dien Bien Phu and Sapa, etc. The National Administration of Tourism is working in close cooperation with Ministries and local governments of those regions to work out master plans for tourist development. Tourist development in those regions has contributed to “alleviation of poverty”, thus helping the ethnic minority groups in those region to “resettle”, stabilizing their livelihood, protecting nature and preserving their cultural identity.

Picture: Sapa

Question 5: Also in the North, Ha Long Bay is world renown for its unique scenery.  Because of this, tourist arrivals in this area are increasing rapidly.  At the same time, development is increasing pollution, traffic and destruction of wildlife habitat.  How does your government and you Ministry’s plan for development factor in these very real downsides of development? 

Picture: Halong Bay

Answer:  Tourist growth, in terms of headcounts of tourists, plus the amount of vehicles always produces two types of impacts, both positive and negative. Fully aware of this fact, the Government of Vietnam and the Administration of Tourism have taken specific measures to mitigate the negative impacts. The overwhelming goal is to develop “sustainable tourism” not only for Halong Bay, but also for all localities, historical relics and other picturesque landscapes throughout the country. “Sustainable tourism” is not only the goal, but also the operating principle of all organizations and individuals involved in tourism business in Vietnam. “Sustainable tourism” has become a subject in official curriculum of tourist training institutions and one topic of the mass media in education programs for community.  Such community education programs as “Green Summer”, “Green, Clean and Beautiful Cities”, “Clean Seas, Clean Streets without noise pollution” and measures for waste management, for cleaning up oil leakage in the waterways, and for management of loose-construction-materials trucks, etc are concrete activities for sustainable tourism.

Question 6: Vietnam is a country in which the population is still quite young on average.  It also has a relatively large population – over 85 million.  How does job creation figure into the government’s development plans for tourism and is there a national program to better develop hotel management staff, Chefs and other hospitality industry workers?  Also, is you Ministry and the government interested in further attracting companies that specialize in hospitality training and education to further strengthen this field?

Answer:  The policy of the Government and the Administration of Tourism to develop tourist infrastructure aims at economic development, including job creation for the people. As an economic sector, tourism has its own features which are the linkages with various sectors, localities and a large number of stakeholders and the requirements for a high standard of quality of services provided. Therefore, development of human resources in tourism is of great importance, especially the contingent of tour managers, hotel managers, tour guides, receptionists, chefs, bar tenders, room service staffs, waiters and waitresses. At present, apart from universities, higher education institutions and secondary vocational training institutions which provide training in tourism under the management of Ministry of Education and Training and other relevant ministries, the National Administration of Tourism has its own training system specialized in tourism training from vocational to higher education levels, capable of satisfying all the needs for above-mentioned high class services. The National Administration of Tourism has made good use of the assistance of World Tourism Organization, of ATF, ASIANTA, PATA, etc. and Technical Assistance projects of the EU, Belgium, Luxembourg to invite foreign experts to provide training for human resource development. Over the past period, experts of the World Tourism Organization have helped The National Administration of Tourism to  draft the Tourism Law. With the assistance of Belgium experts, two training courses in tourist management have been organized in Vietnam and two others in Belgium for personnel of the tourism sector of Vietnam. In addition, The National Administration of Tourism has organized regular annual training courses. All this manifests that the National Administration of Tourism has attached utmost importance to human resource development which is an indispensable factor for development.

Question 7: Vietnam’s travel industry is rather young in world terms.  There are many professional and world class Vietnamese travel companies like Viet Flying Dragon -VFD in the North and Saigon Tourist in the South.  Is your Ministry concerned about the level of training and professionalism in your industry and how is your organization working to improve this?

Answer: The starting point of the Vietnam’s economy in general, and its tourism sector, including travel, in particular, are both low and new as compared with the world.  Nonetheless, thanks to its tremendous efforts and fast-moving reforms, and by “taking the short cut”, Vietnams tourist industry, including travel, have caught up with the general development impetus, narrowing down the gap with the region and the world. At present, there are some 300 travel companies with world-class professionalism. These companies are capable of satisfying the needs of world-famous travel companies and of travelers requiring the highest standards. Most of the contingent of travel staffs, especially international travel of our tourist industry have gone through regular and systematic training and have gained hands-on experience. However, in order to respond to ever-increasing demand of the tourist market, the development of human resources for the tourist industry, particularly the training of tour guides requires a high degree of uniformity in terms of training content and time among the various training institutions. The National Administration of Tourism has worked as a coordinator for the Ministry of Education and Training, universities, higher education institutions and secondary vocational training institutions, and thanks to this an initial uniformed training curriculum for tour guides has been agreed upon and put in practice. This is a breakthrough in unifying and standardizing training courses for tour guides at all levels.

Question 8:Tourism in Thailand has been more actively developed and is a multi-billion dollar industry that brings in much foreign exchange for Thailand and also helps substantially with job growth.  Has Vietnam studied the Thai tourism industry and could you mention some good points and also perhaps some lessons learned that Vietnam has drawn from Thailand’s experience with mass tourism?

Answer: Thailand started its tourist industry long before Vietnam. When Vietnam was at war, Thailand had the opportunity to develop its economy, including tourism. At present, Thailand’s tourist industry is far more advanced than Vietnam’s tourism industry, both in terms of number of international tourists (over 10 million) and in revenue from tourism. In the course of tourist development, on the one hand, Vietnam “mainly relies on its own”, and on the other learns from countries with more developed tourist industry, including Thailand. What we can learn from Thailand’s experience is that Thailand’s tourist promotion drives are always conducted on a national level and Thailand Prime Minister always appears at big events, such as AMAZING THAILAND in the aftermath of  the 1997 financial crisis, and eating chicken himself to assure tourists in the wake of SARS in 2003 or to encourage travelers after the Tsumani in December 2004.  Also, to allow many sales points to encourage “shopping tourism” in various means and ways, most important of which is a large budget allocation for this program. What Vietnam can learn from Thailand is that due consideration should be taken when developing cheap tours in a large scale to avoid uncontrollable situation at some stage.

Question 9: Thailand has also very actively promoted tourism to the islands of Phuket, Kho Samui, Kho Samet, and most recently Kho Chang.  Vietnam also has many beautiful and still undeveloped island locations like the islands off of Nha Trang, Phu Quoc Island and Can Dao Island.  Is Vietnam promoting the development of these islands and what can you tell us about current visitors to these little known island hideaways and about future development?

Answer:  As I mentioned above, promotion needs to be given due attention and a considerable budget should be allocated by the Government for this. Bays, lagoons and islands of Vietnam are valuable assets. Halong Bay is regarded as the 8th wonder of the world.  Nha Trang lagoon is one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world.  Suc islands as Cat Ba, Van Don (in Halong Bay), Cham islet (Quang Nam province) and islands in Nha Trang, Phu Quoc Island and, Con Dao Island are beautiful seascapes with ideal beaches and a lot of green flora. All these sites have great potentials for tourism. At present, some of these islands have attracted a large number of  tourists.  For example, Cat Ba Island receives over 150 thousand tourists per year, Phu Quoc island over 60 thousand, Con Dao over 20 thousand.  The Government of Vietnam has plans to develop tourism at these islands so as to turn some of them into large tourist centers for Phu Quoc and Ha Long.

Question 10: What are the opportunities for foreign investment in the tourism industry in Vietnam?  Also, does the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement give U.S. companies interested in this sector advantages and if so, how would you recommend that U.S. or European companies interested in this sector further find out more about these opportunities.

Answer:  Investment in tourism accounts for an important portion of  FDI in Vietnam at present with 325 projects classified at tourism attracting,  USD9.4 billion, mostly in hotel projects (157 ptojects), golf courts (13 projects) and office buildings (131 projects).

Most of the FDI projects are from Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and France.  Projects from the US account for a very small proportion.

The US-Vietnam BTO creates favorable conditions for trade and tourism exchange between the two countries. The number of American tourists to Vietnam has seen quick growth over the last years. We hope that American investors will pay more attention to Vietnam, especially to the tourist industry, a very dynamic sector with a high growth rate in Vietnam. We are happy to create favorable conditions, provide support, information and other needed facilities to assist European and American investors to invest in Vietnam.


About the Interviewer:  Christopher W. Runckel, a former senior US diplomat who served in many counties in Asia, is a graduate of the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark Law School. He served as Deputy General Counsel of President Gerald Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board. Mr. Runckel is the principal and founder of Runckel & Associates, a Portland, Oregon based consulting company that assists businesses expand business opportunities in Asia.

Until April of 1999, Mr. Runckel was Minister-Counselor of the US Embassy in Beijing, China. Mr. Runckel lived and worked in Thailand for over six years. He was the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after the Vietnam War. In 1997, he was awarded the U.S. Department of States highest award for service, the Distinguished Honor Award, for his contribution to improving U.S.-Vietnam relations. Mr. Runckel is one of only two non-Ambassadors to receive this award in the 200-year history of the U.S. diplomatic service.


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