By James Pearson
PHU QUOC, Vietnam (Reuters) – In Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese island off the coast of Cambodia, posters warning tourists of the dangers of COVID-19 have long since faded in the powerful sunshine, along with the throngs of international travellers that used to dot its beaches.
Vietnam recorded a 98% fall in visitors this April compared to 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic, but its success in fighting the virus, posting only 324 cases and no deaths, now sees it set to breathe life back into its tourism industry.
Vietnam will be one of the first Southeast Asian nations to start to revive its economy, but with a ban still in place on foreign visitors, and many of their major tourist markets under lockdown, hotels and resorts are discounting paradise to make it more attractive to local travellers.
At the Mango Bay resort in Phu Quoc, staff in surgical masks served icy cocktails and chilled glasses of white wine to small groups of guests, many of them young urban tourists, from Hanoi or from Ho Chi Minh City.
General manager Ronan Le Bihan said the resort now needed to adapt to local tastes.
“Tourist businesses targeting foreign tourists will be in trouble for a long time,” said Bihan. “We can now focus on the Vietnamese market. But that is a very large term. And not all Vietnamese are interested in what we offer.”
A tourism promotion campaign “Vietnamese People Travel in Vietnam” debuted last week and aims to “introduce quality tourism products and service packages at reasonable prices”.
The move puts Vietnam ahead of its regional tourism competitors such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, where travel restrictions are only just starting to lift.
Tourism raised 726 trillion dong ($31 billion) last year, nearly 12% of Vietnam’s 2019 GDP, but while barely 17% of the 103 million travellers were foreigners, they spent slightly more than domestic counterparts.
Warning of the risk of reopening to foreigners too quickly, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has called for the promotion of domestic tourism.
To lure local travellers, hotels and airlines have cut prices by as much as half, Vu The Binh, chairman of Vietnam Society of Travel Agents, and vice chairman of the Vietnam Tourism Association, told Reuters.
“The recovery of domestic tourism should boost international tourism,” he said. “After this programme ends in mid-July, we will embark on another programme to promote international tourism, depending on the virus situation.”
Domestic tourism is on the post-lockdown agenda elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but tight travel restrictions mean its uncertain when it will resume. Indonesia’s holiday island of Bali has said it could reopen to foreign tourists in October, and hotels in Thailand are gearing up for an eventual reopening.
One option being considered in Vietnam is to join a “travel bubble” with other countries that have successfully fought back the coronavirus.
Ken Atkinson, vice chairman of the Vietnam Tourism Advisory Board, said the first countries to target could be Australia and New Zealand, which are considering their own free-movement zone.
“However, as China and Korea are our two biggest inbound source markets it is important to have plans in place to reopen travel from those markets as soon as it is safe,” he told Reuters.
Asian markets were likely to be the first to recover, said William Haandrikman, general manager of the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, an iconic, colonial-era hotel whose crowds of wealthy Western tourists are long gone.
“We have had to re-invent ourselves to focus directly on the local domestic market as well as regional Asian markets,” he said. That includes room deals with $100 credits for food.
Domestic tourism is now on the rise, with most Vietnamese airlines reporting their limited domestic flights are fast reaching capacity.
Lured by low prices, Le Thi Mai Phuong, a 38-year-old businesswoman from Hanoi, spent last weekend in the central city of Danang.
“I’m afraid that if we wait until the virus is over, the cost will go up and the beaches will become too crowded,” she said. “We don’t know if the virus will return to Vietnam and cause another lockdown”.
“I’d have to stay at home and dream about travelling again.”
(Reporting by James Pearson; Additional reporting by Khanh Vu and Phuong Nguyen in Hanoi; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Michael Perry)