Country focus: Vietnam

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Vietnam’s tourism leaders are sailing full steam ahead with new initiatives that will not only boost the country’s cruise sector, but also integrate cruise with other areas of tourism.
Although still a niche sector, over the last 12 months arrivals into Vietnam by sea grew to 47,583 – an increase of 24.6 percent compared to 2013.
2015 may only be two months in, but growth hasn’t slowed down, with sea arrivals in January jumping 90.1 percent compared to the same month last year.
Despite the growing number, Deputy Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Ho Anh Tuan said in an interview last year that cruise still only makes up three-to-five percent of international tourists each year.
He said Vietnam has to attract more cruisers to its shores in order to diversify its tourism business, but pointed out: “The poor quality of tourist services at seaports and a lack of support services for visitors is damaging prospects in this sector.”
As part of plans to build the sector, Vietnam has revealed a range of new initiatives that include port development plans, proposals to attract new ships and a shift in visitor fees.
Among the most recent changes is last month’s decision to decrease the existing shore leave visa for international cruise passengers.
Now cruisers onboard international ships like Celebrity Century and Queen Elizabeth that want to go ashore in Vietnam for sightseeing only have to pay US$5 – a dramatic drop from US$45.
The change came into effect on 1 January and according to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dun, will encourage more passengers aboard the larger international vessels to embark on shore tours.
The PM has also called for an easier visa process for overseas sea arrivals, which he says currently deters people from disembarking at Vietnam’s ports.
Cruise passengers that want to experience the destination are required to apply for individual shore visas for every port they visit.
Mr Tan Dun along with Vietnamese tour operators believe this system discourages tourists from visiting.
“Vietnam is making it hard for people to get off the ship and spend money here,” Industry Travel Asia general director David Watson said.
Changes to fees and visas come only a few months after cruise lines resumed conversations with the local government to overturn an old law that forbids cruise ships from operating casinos and souvenir shops while docked at Vietnamese ports.
The law was founded 20 years ago to encourage more cruisers to get off and experience the destination.
Meanwhile, Mr Anh Tuan also pointed out last year that port infrastructure was letting the country’s sector down – an issue the government has since made plans to resolve.
Late last year, the Vietnamese government announced it will spend up to VN$1.25 trillion to build a new terminal on the southern island of Phu Quoc.
The port will be capable of handling 5,000 to 6,000 people, which would allow larger vessels belonging to lines like Royal Caribbean to dock in the country.
In Chan May, local authorities are working with cruise lines to upgrade the local port to bring 25,000 new tourists to Hue each year.
The plan is upgrade the terminal so it is capable of handling one of Royal Caribbean’s Voyager-class ships, which can carry up to 3,130 passengers.
Royal Caribbean told ASEAN Cruise News last year that they expect one of their Voyager-class ships to make periodic calls to Chan Mau during the winter season.
“We anticipate making periodic calls to Chan May in the winter season,” a spokesperson told ASEAN Cruising
But it’s not just the big ships Vietnam has set its sights on, it’s also the intimate river vessels.
The Mekong is a big draw card for the destination, with more international river ships setting sail from Vietnam to its neighbor Cambodia every year.
Last year, Aqua Expeditions – a successful river cruise operator in South America – decided to make its entrance into the Asia market, choosing the Mekong as its start point.
The line launched Aqua Mekong, a 40-passenger vessel targeted toward US and Australian visitors.
Then there’s Mekong Princess, the 24-passenger all-suite vessel, which sets itself apart on the Mekong by being the first ‘spa concept’ ship on the river. This means, the vessel will carry passengers who want to be pampered with treatments, yoga and meditation.
Operated by Haimark Travel, the ship will have a 1-1 staff ratio and serve dishes created by world-class chef Jorge Penneke.
These vessels in addition to the existing four Pandaw vessels already making their way up and down the Mekong plus APT and Scenic Tours’ new ships heading to the Mekong in the coming years.
Seeing opportunity to develop Mekong tourism, Deputy Prime Minister, Hoang Trung Hai approved a new project to improve tourism infrastructure along the Greater Mekong sub-region.
The US$50 million project started late last year and is expected to be complete by 2019.
It will see improvements to infrastructure facilities, connecting tourism routes and destinations as well as improving environment conditions in some tourism centres.