By Juliana Liew

In the tourism industry, we are always talking about market segments. It’s an oversimplification, but we have to recognize that there are general trends when analyzing large segments, such as the domestic market and the international market.

Problems occur when these segments clash, which was highlighted last week by the resurfacing of a rumor that Quang Binh Province will build a cable car to Son Doong, the world’s largest cave. A cable car to Son Doong will undoubtedly be popular with the domestic market. But even rumors tarnish Vietnam’s international reputation, as tourist professionals and foreign visitors may question if Vietnam is worth visiting if the natural wonders don’t maintain their beauty and integrity.

In this article, Juliana navigates the balancing act. 

Amid global economic and safety concerns, Vietnam has emerged in the last few years as a safe and affordable Southeast Asian destination; one that is complete with an appealing climate, fascinating nature and landscapes, and just enough mystery still surrounding its people and culture. An expanding middle class and growing appetite for travel have also boosted domestic tourism in the country.

As Vietnam strives to achieve its grand ambition to make tourism a spearhead industry by 2020, development in and around the country’s tourism hot spots has been extensive. Changes are still taking place rapidly with more players across industries wanting a share of the action.

Cable car in Sapa (Photo credit: Fansipan Legend)

In Sapa, northern Vietnam, a cable car system alongside a new resort complex and large pagoda at the peak of Fansipan have added to the widespread construction. In Phong Nha, central Vietnam, plans have been approved to build centers for entertainment, cuisine and shopping. There is also an intention to install a cable car system to Son Doong, the world’s largest cave.

Meanwhile, Phu Quoc is seeing continued constructions of mega-projects. This includes a casino, which will add to existing attractions such as the Vinpearl Land theme park and safari in the north, as well as a cable car system complete with hotel and entertainment complex in the island’s south.

For a country whose primary charms lie in its wealth of natural wonders and diverse cultures, large-scale buildings such as tourist and entertainment centers tend to be off-putting to some international travelers. On the other hand, they are proving to be popular for many domestic tourists.

The major reasons for this discrepancy, according to Bien Nguyen, an avid traveler and founder of Save Son Doong, lie in the different (and sometimes opposing) travel habits and motivations of these two groups.

“International travelers usually seek an experience with nature and mostly travel independently or in small groups. Meanwhile, most Vietnamese tourists prefer relaxing holidays and touring in bigger groups. They enjoy eating, taking photos and visiting popular attractions with lots of people. And they usually want all of these things in the easiest way,” he says.

For a country whose primary charms lie in its wealth of natural wonders and diverse cultures, large-scale buildings such as tourist and entertainment centers tend to be off-putting to some international travelers.

Acknowledging these differences, the government has called for development to be properly planned and focused on specific areas, to find the balance between serving international and domestic customers, Tuoi Tre News reports.

However, it appears that ‘newer and bigger’ is the current strategy in growing Vietnam’s tourism industry. At last year’s State Steering Committee on Tourism meeting reported by Viet Nam News, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam has specifically urged localities to attract big-scale investments, citing the boost in numbers seen in key tourism spots such as Trang An, Sam Son and Phu Quoc.

At this juncture, can balance be achieved?

It is difficult but not impossible, according to Dzung Le from Jungle Boss Homestay in Phong Nha. If strategically developed and promoted, highlighting the uniqueness of a particular destination accordingly to the different visitor’s preferences and tastes, there is sure to be a better balance between international and domestic tourism.

Giving an example, Dzung says, “Phong Nha is the capital of adventure and a paradise for hikers and cavers. Places such as Cat Tien and Cat Ba Island will also have greater appeal for international visitors. At the same time, there are many other sites that are more attractive and well suited to domestic tourists like Halong, Sapa, and Nha Trang.”

Localities also need to be more open and start inviting foreign developers and providers to the planning table. Then they could listen better and have a wider worldview in their overall strategy, opines Mark Barnett, General Director of Cassia Cottage in Phu Quoc.

Phong Nha is the capital of adventure and a paradise for hikers and cavers (Photo credit: Oxalis)

In that, asserts Rohan Barker, Managing Director of Visit Phu Quoc Travel Guide and Buddy Ice-cream & Info Café, it remains crucial that plans for further development be made in view of the long term.

“Instead of vying for instant profits, consider what the projects’ real impacts are on the environment and the local community, how they will affect the return visitor rates, and if they are sustainable in the long run. Otherwise, what will become of the destination when everyone heads to a bigger and shinier attraction or entertainment center newly built at another hot spot?” he says.

Then again, the crux of the matter may not be about balancing international and domestic tourism, but about addressing more pressing issues that affect all visitors.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to minimise the gap. Maybe it should be there. But we all need to play a part in finding a sustainable solution for the traffic situation, littering and waste disposal problem (among others). As long as we do that, I don’t foresee a clash between the different groups,” says Ylva Landoff Lindberg, Director at Sapa Sisters Trekking Adventure.

The crux of the matter may not be about balancing international and domestic tourism, but about addressing more pressing issues that affect all visitors.

Indeed, many are now calling for more effective measures to overcome widespread concerns of traffic gridlocks and accidents, quality of service, hygiene standards and pollution; all of which, as reported by Thanh Nien News, the government attributes to the low visitor return rate to Vietnam. Some have even started their own initiatives such as Keep Vietnam Clean and Green to get the ball rolling.

The process of balancing international and domestic tourism is a delicate one, requiring the government and industry players to adopt a long-term view in their plans. Development with a sole aim of achieving industry targets ultimately comes at the expense of the environment. And this will surely derail any advancements made within the sector, whether international or domestic.

This content is also available in: Vietnamese

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