Over the past couple of weeks, tourists have been flocking to Vietnam’s mountainous far north to get a glimpse of something exotic and mysterious to most here: snow. Lao Cai province’s localities, such as Sa Pa, have been packed tight, nearing-full occupancy and wracking up VND63 billion ($2.74 million) over just a few days.
For someone who’s followed travel trends in Southeast Asia since the ’90s, it seems charmingly counterintuitive that Jack Frost would trump sun and sand this time of the year. After all, Northeast Asia, Europe and vast swathes of North America are at the peak of their sun-starvation index. If 2021 is the year that building a snowman replaces that of glee-seekers being doted upon by smiling, unobtrusive natives on a (wait for it) “pristine” beach well, I dare say it’s one silver lining in an otherwise dismal story. Today, for example, the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) released data showing 338 outbound travel companies (usually mom-and-pop outfits) have folded over the pandemic.
The events of last year changed travel and tourism in ways we’re still only beginning to process the long-term knock-on effects of. To speak just for our little slice of the globe, the number of foreign tourists visiting Vietnam in 2019 reached a record high of 20 million. That all came to a screeching halt in March, when borders across the region shut and commercial flights suspended. From there, the figures take a pretty drastic turn south, with foreign tourist arrivals for 2020 estimated at 3.8 million, down 78.7 percent from the previous year. Estimated at VND 4.5 trillion (US$ 3.66 billion), revenue was down 39.6% from 2019. Ouch.
Ho Chi Minh City's tourism market took huge pandemic-related hits: international visitation in 2020 was 1.3 million, plummeting 84.8 percent year-on-year, while the number of domestic travellers was 15.8 million, a decrease of 48.4 percent year-on-year.
From our inception, The CREATV Company has been all about providing fixing/location scouting/production services and full line production for filmmakers attracted by the scene-stealing locales and epic stories to be found in this city, country, region. Where the travel and tourism trade encounters challenges, and evolves to meet them, so too do we. Even though the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to keep our borders closed to international travel, we’re watching closely as the domestic tourism takes over as the primary breadwinner in the absence of a viable alternative.
Vietnam was among the first countries in the region to restart business activities after inter-provincial travel was given the all-clear to resume. It’s in this space that we’re anticipating exciting opportunities in the months ahead. While planning with optimism for the reopening to international markets in 2021, we are hunkering down for a year of recovery inside our borders. To that end, our hometown Ho Chi Minh City, has set a target of welcoming 33 million tourists and revenue of VND100 trillion (US$4.33 billion) in 2021.
The government recently announced the suspension of inbound flights, starting with those originating in countries where a higher risk of importing the Covid-19 variant (from the UK, South Africa or elsewhere) is documented. This will be just the start to a gradual reduction of flights through Tết (Vietnamese lunar new year). While nobody can say for sure when commercial air travel will return to normal, when it does, Vietnam will be one of the few countries in Southeast Asia to have direct, nonstop flights to the US, Europe, and Australia. It’s not a question of if, but when. But the answer is: not anytime soon.
When the world has healed and travel begins to resemble something that it used to, I’m hoping that people will have got the memo that Vietnam – as both a travel destination and filming location – is a dynamic and lively place. Maybe this pivot to Vietnamese (and those of us foreigners who call here our home) exploring Vietnam will produce more and stories to support that. Just as we hope that films depicting Vietnam and the Vietnamese solely through the eyes of, say, returning American war veterans tussling with one-dimensional cartoon clichés, we welcome a new collective language for stories and travels that we can all share together.