|Foreign tourists take a cyclo around Hà Nội’s Old Quarter. — VNS Photo Khánh Dương|
It is often said that you get what you pay for.
But in this case, that price was far too high.
A group of foreign tourists’ memories of Việt Nam are almost certainly scarred after they were ripped off on the fourth day of the Lunar New Year.
They were forced to pay nearly VNĐ16.5 million (US$702) for a meal of 14 dishes and ten beers at a restaurant in tourism hotspot Nha Trang, Khánh Hòa Province, with several simple dishes costing exorbitant prices.
For example, the diners had to pay VNĐ250,000 ($10.5) for a simple dish of fried vegetables and VNĐ200,000 ($8.5) for a bowl of congee.
The restaurant owner explained to authorities after the bill started circulating on social media that the vegetables were fried with beef, the porridge was cooked with lobsters and that food sources were limited at that time due to the Lunar New Year holiday.
The restaurant was fined for not having fixed food prices in line with administrative regulations. However, the VNĐ750,000 ($32) fine was miles less than the profit they made that night.
At another restaurant also in Nha Trang over the holiday, tourists were ripped off with a bill for VNĐ800,000 ($34) for four sets of rice and VNĐ1.5million ($64) for three sets of eggs fried with tomatoes.
Holiday seasons such as the New Year or summer when a large number of people flock to tourist destinations are regarded as a favourable time for service providers to earn massive profits. Restaurant and hotel owners take this opportunity to put prices up, and in some cases customers just have to accept it.
This week the Trần Temple Festival, one of the most famous and crowded spring festivals in the north, kicked off. Many hotels and hostels located around the temple in Nam Định City were fully booked even though room prices were two or three times higher than normal.
At a recent conference on developing tourism in the central and Central Highlands regions, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc said that there were 3.75 million results on Google for the search ‘gouging tourists’ in Vietnamese.
He said overcharging tourists would tarnish the image of the Vietnamese people and the nation if no action was taken to crack down on the scam.
The country’s tourism industry last year recorded 15.5 million international arrivals, up 19.9 per cent against the previous year. This achievement demonstrates Việt Nam’s open visa policy, infrastructure upgrades to expand inter-provincial and cross-border connectivity and rising aviation connections, among others, have transformed tourism into the country’s economic engine.
But let’s pause for a moment to take a look at these figures.
Eighty per cent of foreign tourists to Việt Nam do not come back, in contrast to 89 per cent the international visitor return rate in Singapore and 82 per cent in Thailand, the Việt Nam National Administration of Tourism revealed in 2017.
Figures published in 2016 by the Pacific Asia Travel Association, a non-profit group, showed that only 6 per cent of first-time visitors return to Việt Nam.
The figures show Việt Nam is an attractive tourism destination but say little about tourist satisfaction on quality.
Besides limited resources for tourism promotions, a lack of unique tourism destinations and competition from neighbouring countries, the low return rate was due to travel scams, according to Vietnamese tourism officials.
Travel scams have been recognised as a problem for Vietnamese tourism. The national code of conduct for local and international tourists, tour operators and residential communities at tourism spots issued by Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2017 specifies rules applicable to tourism, hotel and transport service providers and sellers, refraining them from disturbing tourists, overcharging and selling low-quality or fake products. But the code of conduct seems to have had little effect in reality.
In 2013, when overcharging tourists was raised at a National Assembly question and answer session, a deputy proposed establishing a tourism police force dedicated to protecting foreigners from scams. The idea was put forward to be added to the amended law on tourism, but received split opinions and is currently still on the shelf.
Even though the problem has only been reported in certain localities, travel scams such as overcharging for restaurants, hotels, taxi fares, vendors, shopping traps and pickpocketing have scarred the whole country’s tourism success. Like a rotten apple which spoils the barrel, travel scams have held back the country’s efforts to boost service quality-oriented tourism.
In 2018, Việt Nam was recognised by the World Travel Awards as Asia’s top tourist destination. The country also won other awards in global tourism rankings as one of the world’s best emerging destinations thanks to its impressive landscapes and natural wonders.
Natural beauty and cultural values attract tourists to Việt Nam for the first time.
Hospitality and service quality determine whether they return.
Local hospitality can be felt through the quality of tourism services locals offer tourists.
It depends largely on the ethics of business owners who must choose between high profits and service quality and customer satisfaction.
High-quality and friendly services are opening opportunities for Việt Nam to develop a sustainable tourism and gain profits, and also the key to approaching potential international investors in other economic sectors.
It is time to make a move on the tourism police force and stiffen penalties for restaurant and hotel owners who attach more importance to profits than service quality.
Like in many other sectors, a code of ethics is a must for better tourism service management. Restaurant and hotels owners must fix service prices for both normal days and the holiday season and be aware of the ethics code as one of the criteria they need to meet to qualify for a business licence.
Besides strategies to diversify local tourism products, eliminating tourist scams must be a top priority for the Vietnamese tourism sector, not only at a management level but for every person, street vendor, restaurant or hotel owner and taxi driver who acts as a tourism ambassador.
15.5 million foreign visitors and 80 million domestic tourists last year contributed a total revenue of VNĐ620 trillion (US$26.6 billion) to the national tourism industry.
To hit this year’s target of welcoming 18 million foreigners and 85 million domestic visitors, the sector should not only think about quantity first but how we can gain the trust of travellers to make them stay longer, feel satisfied, spend more on our services and say yes if asked “Will you be coming back?” — VNS