Vietnam’s thriving tourism industry

As Vietnam vies for a slice of South-east Asia’s tourism pie, it finds itself grappling with a familiar problem - how to let the locals make a living out of the industry while maintaining the peace and exclusivity that foreign tourists seek.

Hoi An, on the coast of Central Vietnam, does not feature in the tourism ads that have started airing on the CNN, as part of a push by the government to boost tourist arrivals, but local authorities are keen to promote this World Heritage site as a destination.

A trading port from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, Hoi An’s rich history and varied architecture are big draw cards for tourists, eager to soak up local culture. Already some 700,000 foreigners, attracted by its reputation as a peaceful destination, visit Hoi An each year. But as the tourist traffic grows so too have the struggles between authorities and those keen to survive from the industry. For years now visitors have found that getting quiet time can be hard, with endless cries of “you buy from me” ringing through the streets or over the sand of nearby Cua Dai beach.

Says Tran Van Nhan, deputy manager of the Commercial Tourist Department of Hoi An, “it (tourism) changes the minds of the people gradually. Every minute. Every second. They are hospitable and friendly and then next week very commercial.”

Nhan says there has been an ongoing campaign since January to cut back and regulate the number of hawkers in and around the town. Despite involving representatives from the police forces, tourism department and the culture and information department uniting in a crackdown on street traders, success has been varying. “We would like to organise them, we had name cards, but it didn’t work because everyone wants more.”

Some two months ago efforts were reignited. Though efforts in town remain disorganised, on both sides of the fence, the women who sell fruit, Tiger Balm and knick knacks from baskets on Cua Dai beach have drawn up a self-organised roster whereby each person works only every second day.

Unlike other South-east Asian tourism spots, Vietnam has remained relatively free of obvious signs of the worst effects of tourism - the sex trade. Whilst prostitution is common across the country, there are no girlie shows in Hoi An and “taxi girls” keep a low profile at a few tourist bars. Prostitution is illegal in Vietnam and few people are willing to openly acknowledge the prevalence of this “social evil”. Vietnam is the second-fastest growing economy in the region and its tourism industry is booming. Vietnam has seen over three million international arrivals this year, an 18.5 percent increase over last year.

Yet though the slated high end developments will lure even more tourists to Hoi An, the exclusive nature of these places means that, on the beach at least, visitors get their privacy. Both the four-star Victoria hotel and five-star Palm Garden Resort have their own ‘private’ beaches, strips of sand patrolled by security refusing entry to any but guests.

And it’s very likely that other beachside developments will follow the same model, meaning more tourists but the same, limited amount of space for hawkers. When asked

what she thinks of the new self-imposed roster system, the jewellery seller hesitates then says,”I think it’s a good thing.” — IPS