Covid-19 decimated tourism this year, but there is light at the end of the tunnel as Vietnam recently reopened to foreign tourists after an 18-month lockdown.
Vietnamese airlines and travel firms started to recover in late 2020 thanks to stringent quarantine and good pandemic control measures, but the resurgence of the third coronavirus wave triggered by the fast-spreading U.K. variant in late January crushed the peak Tet holiday travel season.
Many localities canceled crowded spring festivals, scrapped fireworks shows and suspended sports and entertainment activities while tourism hotspots shut down, forcing many people to cancel travel plans.
Due to the falling number of domestic tourists during Tet, normally the busiest travel season of the year filled with festivals and crowded events, tourism revenues in the first two months of this year were down 62.1 percent year-on-year to VND2.5 trillion ($109 million).
After the third wave was brought under control in late March, top tourist destinations reopened in preparation for the return of tourists during the four-day holidays for Reunification Day (April 30) and Labor Day (May 1).
Popular tourist destinations such as Phu Quoc, Ha Long, Sa Pa, and Da Lat were fully booked.
The resurgence of the fourth coronavirus wave just two days before the holidays began did not prevent people from traveling and tourist towns cashed in and earned millions of dollars in revenues.
Vung Tau beach town is flooded with holidaygoers on April 30, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dang Khoa
Lao Cai, home to famous mountain town Sa Pa, received 64,000 visitors, four times the number that had visited the previous year while Phu Quoc Island received over 91,000 visitors, a three-fold increase, according to official data.
Da Lat, the popular resort town in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong, saw many of its downtown streets jammed by revelers as 145,000 people made the trip up the mountain, a 180 percent increase. Da Nang City saw the number of visitors increase 10 times to 75,000.
A costly price
The travel boom in March and April left aviation and travel firms expectant about the peak summer travel season, but things did not pan out as they expected.
After the four-day holiday Covid transmission started rising at an alarming rate — over 1,000 cases a day — with HCMC and southern provinces becoming the epicenter of the fourth wave.
Many localities suspended flights from HCMC and imposed strict quarantine measures for visitors from there and beach destinations were placed under lockdown as the situation continued to worsen with the highly contagious Delta variant now found in Vietnam, prompting people to cancel all planned summer tours.
Online searches for tourist accommodation and flights between May 1 and Aug. 2 fell by 50-88 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to data from Google’s Destination Insights.
Hundreds of cruise ships in tourist hotspot Ha Long Bay remain anchored due to drop in travel demand, June 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Cuong
Statistics from the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism show the number of domestic tourists, 3.5 million in May, plummeted to 500,000 in July.
In August aviation authorities instructed carriers to stop selling tickets until further notice, and the tourism industry reached its nadir.
Revenues from tourism in January-September plunged by 41 percent year-on-year.
With the peak summer travel season devastated, thousands of hotels, restaurants and entertainment complexes had to suspend operations for nearly five months.
‘New normal’ period
In early October, with the pandemic basically under control and the government changing its strategy from ensuring zero Covid cases to responding safely to the disease, some tourist destinations like Quang Ninh, Lam Dong, Quang Binh, and Hai Phong eased restrictions and allowed entry for vaccinated tourists.
On October 10 the government permitted domestic flights to resume after almost two months and travel companies launched tours complying with safety requirements.
On October 11 the tourism ministry exempted fully immunized domestic tourists from Covid tests, and people were only to be tested if they had Covid symptoms or were from areas designated ‘high risk.’
By mid-November most tourist destinations had reopened to domestic visitors, but many localities still required visitors to self-monitor their health on arrival even if fully vaccinated.
In the month after tourism resumed the number of tourists was 2.5 million, three times that of the previous month.
Return of foreign tourists after 18 months
The government allowed five localities, Kien Giang, Khanh Hoa, Quang Ninh, and Quang Nam provinces and Da Nang City, to receive foreign tourists under a vaccine passport program starting November.
Vietnam Airlines staff welcome foreign tourists arriving at Da Nang International Airport, November 17, 2021. Photo courtesy of Vietnam Airlines
Opening its borders to tourists for the first time after nearly two years, Vietnam received its first batch of 29 visitors from the U.S. and Europe. They came by charter flight on November 17 to Quang Nam Province, home to Hoi An town, for a seven-day trip.
Over 200 South Korean tourists touched down in Phu Quoc Island on November 20, and Khanh Hoa welcomed its first group of foreign tourists on November 25.
Da Nang and Quang Ninh, home to Ha Long Bay, plan to allow in foreign tourists from next month.
In all, over 1,100 visitors had arrived by charter flights as of December 6, and the tourism industry expects 15,000 visitors to come this month.
Tourists take cyclo rides around Hoi An ancient town, November 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Duy Hau
Resumption of commercial flights
Airlines and tour operators are looking forward to the resumption of international commercial flights on January 1 to cash in on the growing demand from overseas Vietnamese to visit home for Tet, which peaks on February 1 this time.
The government has approved the resumption of flights to nine destinations: Bangkok, Beijing or Guangzhou, Phnom Penh, San Francisco or Los Angeles, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei, Tokyo, and Vientiane.
In the second phase starting Jan. 16, flights would be added to Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Moscow, Paris, and Sydney.
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