by Thu Huong
The world was overwhelmed by the stunning images of Son Doong Cave broadcast from the ABC's Good Morning America programme on May 13. The images were like scenes from the 2009 Hollywood Avatar movie, with tropical forests, white sands, magnificent stalactites and beams of sunlight radiating from on high. It was like we were somewhere outside the Earth.
Possibly the world's biggest cave, Son Doong was discovered by a farmer in 1991 and since then has featured in many international and domestic publications. But the ABC show was the first time a Vietnamese location was broadcast live to an American audience.
Six million viewers were stunned at the images of the cave, praising it as "paradise on Earth," "amazing," "breathtaking." Many more expressed their astonishment online.
The show created such a huge buzz that the online world also bustled with images of the cave, stories of the ABC crew who did the show, footage of Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam speaking in English to the interviewer and most of all, revealing our national pride that such a magnificent asset is on our soil.
TheABC invested US$380,000 to produce the show, but it cost Viet Nam nothing. However, we are forced to wonder why there had been no major promotional campaign for Son Doong cave in Viet Nam itself.
Viet Nam's natural resources can match most countries in the region, but the downward trend in international tourists this year might be a warning sign for us that we are losing many chances for promotion.
According to statistics from the Viet Nam National Administration of Tourism, the country welcomed 690,440 international tourists in April, a decrease of 7.4 per cent compared to April 2014. April was also the 11th straight month Viet Nam posted a drop in international tourist arrivals.
Between January-April, Viet Nam's total international arrival numbers were estimated at 2.69 million, yet another drop of 12.2 per cent compared to the same period last year.
Singapore, a country with literally no natural resources, welcomed 2.4 million international tourists in January and February alone, according to the latest statistics on the Singapore Tourism Board website.
Thailand welcomed about 7.8 million international tourists in the first quarter of 2015, up by 23.5 per cent from the first quarter of 2014 when the political crisis occured. It took Thailand just one year to revive its strong growth in tourists.
Despite Ha Noi, HCM City and Hoi An being regularly voted among the world and Asia's most charming destinations, Viet Nam is falling behind other countries in the region when it comes to attracting international tourists.
Viet Nam's efforts to promote tourism have been described as NATO - No Action, Talk Only - a term posted on Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper by a Canadian tourist.
There are few Government tourism promotion campaigns, so visitors rely on material developed by private companies and tour operators. And they have to dig around on the internet to find even this.
A recent article on Saigon Times Online also pointed out that Viet Nam's tourism promotion campaigns have been largely narrowed down to attending travel fairs abroad. Vu The Binh, deputy chairman of the Viet Nam Tourism Association, told a recent conference that he felt embarrassed at seeing Vietnamese booths at these fairs as they were so out of date.
At the same conference, it was revealed by Nguyen Van Tuan, head of VNAT, that Viet Nam spent on average only US$1.5 million on tourism promotion annually, a modest amount compared with other countries in the region.
Television advertisements can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Viet Nam spent nearly US$300,000 to promote travel on CNN in 2007, and $450,000 in 2009 for a BBC ad campaign. With a limited budget, we need to focus more on social media and the online world.
But even an official YouTube tourism promotion channel launched by the VNAT has not been widely known, as Viet Nam News reported earlier. Tourists said the messages did not move people from their seats.
While the tourism authorities in countries such as Thailand and South Korea have a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter, this is not true for Viet Nam.
Malaysia launched its "Truly Asia" campaign in 1999 and the slogan was embedded in the public mind. Viet Nam's slogan has gone from "Timeless Charm" in 2006 to "Hidden Charm" launched in 2012, but it has failed to captivate people's imaginations.
Other issues that need refining include visa complications, dual pricing for foreigners, street thieves, restaurants with big menus but no service, poor infrastructure, traffic accidents, poor English - and red-tape. Tourism operators also need to know that in the long-term, rip-offs hurt us as much as they do visitors. — VNS