The full lifting of Covid travel restrictions after a two-year lockdown was far and away 2022’s biggest moment for Vietnam travel industry.
But although the newfound freedom came nine months ago, recovering to pre-pandemic health remains a difficult task for the industry.
The tourism industry started seeing glimmers of hope late last year as the government allowed limited entry to foreign tourists on tour packages for the first time since Vietnam closed its borders in March 2020.
However, only seven provinces Kien Giang, Khanh Hoa, Quang Ninh, Binh Dinh, Quang Nam and the two major cities of Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang were permitted to welcome back the tourists with pre-set conditions and constraints.
As the pandemic was gradually brought under control, the government began easing Covid requirements and lifting travel restrictions earlier this year.
On January 1, Vietnam officially resumed regular commercial flights after two years, before lifting all Covid restrictions on international flights to and from Vietnam on February 15.
As many countries around the world began reopening their borders to tourists and lifting travel restrictions, tourism experts called on the government to take similar steps.
In mid-February, the government announced plans to reopen international tourism from March 15, but relevant agencies took nearly a month to reach a consensus on official entry regulations.
On March 15 Vietnam scrapped quarantine requirements for visitors and resumed its pre-pandemic visa exemptions for citizens from 24 countries, including Japan, South Korea and some EU members.
At that time, foreign tourists were required to show a negative Covid test result before entry.
Two months later, the government agreed to remove Covid test requirements and health declarations for foreign entrants as well.
The World Tourism Organization named Vietnam as the first Southeast Asian country to fully open to international visitors without any Covid restrictions.
Over two years after freezing the international tourism market, popular tourist hotspots across the country such as Hoi An and HCMC recorded positive signs with the return of their traditionally largest groups of foreign visitors.
Bui Vien in HCMC and Ta Hien in Hanoi, Vietnam’s busiest backpacker streets, were again buzzing with the appearance of international tourists.
Bui Vien pedestrian street is full of revelers in August, 2022. Photo by Thanh Tung
Despite being praised as the first regional country to fully reopen to international tourism, Vietnam has not yet fulfilled its target for 2022.
Vietnam welcomed over 2.95 million foreign arrivals in the first 11 months of this year, just more than half the full-year target of five million.
South Korea sent the highest number of visitors to Vietnam after reopening, followed by the U.S.
The number of foreign visitors this year is forecast to see a drop of 77% against 2019, making Vietnam one of slowest recovering tourism economies post-pandemic, according to a report released by leading travel data & analytics company ForwardKeys.
Since reopening, Vietnam has earned tourism revenues of US$16.5 billion, said Ha Van Sieu, deputy head of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, at a meeting in November.
In 2019, the year before the onset of the pandemic, Vietnam had received a record 18 million foreign visitors and earned revenues of VND750 trillion ($30 billion).
While Vietnam is still struggling with disappointing figures, other Southeast Asian economies have achieved their targeted foreign tourist numbers.
Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, welcomed its 10 millionth foreign tourist of the year last week, fulfilling its target for the year.
In late August, Malaysia announced that it had already fulfilled its target of 4.5 million international visitors in 2022. The country was then instead aiming at a new target of 9.2 million.
Indonesia and Singapore also soon fulfilled their targets.
The slow reopening of key tourism markets, visa hassles and limited international flights are the biggest challenges to Vietnam’s tourism recovery, according to experts.
Tran Le Bao Chau, chairman of the Vietnam Small and Medium Tourism Business Forum (VTF), said that although Vietnam reopened international tourism in mid-March, some key tourism markets such as China, Japan and Russia – which used to account for more than half of Vietnam’s international arrivals before the pandemic – had not yet fully reopened until the end of the third quarter.
Pham Ha, CEO of Lux Group, which specializes in organizing luxury cruise tours, told VnExpress International it would be difficult for the tourism industry to reach the five-million target this year as there were only two weeks left.
“Many foreign tourists have canceled their trips to Vietnam as they could not get an entry visa for more than a month. The current visa policies are a major barrier for Vietnam’s tourism recovery,” Ha said.
Nguyen Ngoc Toan, director of the Images Travel Company, which focuses on European visitors, said the industry was also facing the challenges of limited international flights and skyrocketing airfares, which have caused foreign tourists to consider choosing destinations nearer their homes to save money.
While the international tourism market has not yet shown signs of a strong recovery, domestic tourism has become a ‘lifesaver’ for the industry with over 100 million local tourists traveling throughout the country so far this year, already higher than the 85 million before the pandemic began.
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