I’ve always been remarkably sceptical about Malaysia’s tourist advertising, but it’s managed to permeate the popular consciousness perhaps like no other country. I bet even now as I’m speaking you’re humming ‘Malaysia truly Asia…’ and recalling the rather bland feel-good images from their latest Star World TV adverts.
I got to test the veracity of the adverts recently when I was invited (against my will you must understand!), to go on a trip to Malaysia on a Malaysia Tourist Board press familiarisation tour of the East Malaysian province of Sarawak and Kuala Lumpur. Now the theory is I’m supposed to use the wonderful experience to convince you and countless other readers to visit Malaysia.
People enjoying the Sarawak World Music Festival. Photo by Nguy Ha
But don’t worry I’m not going to do that. Instead, I came away thinking, ‘well if Malaysia can do that, what kind of amazing stuff could Vietnam do to boost tourism?’
Quite frankly Vietnam is being undersold by its tourism sector.
I should make it clear I’m not a tourism industry expert, I’m just some one who loves Vietnam and wants more people to enjoy their stay here. I ask myself almost daily, often after reading some new horror story about tourist development plans – How can we encourage those tourists with bulging wallets and purses full of tasty hard currency here?
Let’s look at the figures, In 2010, Malaysia recorded 24.6 million tourist arrivals, in comparison total international arrivals in Vietnam for 2010 reached 5,049,855, I’m aware that tourist numbers have increased, but Vietnam still doesn’t meet its potential.
So how does Vietnam entice this lucrative business? Well for one thing, it needs to loosen up a bit.
In Kuala Lumpur we stayed in a reasonable hotel located off Jalan Bukit Bintang within walking distance of the main shopping district. The street included probably about forty bars, cafes and restaurants which most strikingly stayed open until the early hours of the morning, raking in thousands of dollars in tourist earnings. While Vietnam can’t compete currently on the shopping front (Malaysia began pioneering tax free shopping decades ago), a simple way of letting the cash flow into the local economy would be taking the basic step of zoning a part of the country’s city centres for 24 hour life. When people are on holiday they want to let their hair down, not get shouted at by a man in a green uniform that they must immediately leave a bar and go to bed. That contains no form of hidden Vietnamese charm, nor encourages future visits.
Friendly local police. Photo by Nguy Ha
I am interested in history, and I enjoy visiting historical sites, but actually I’d actually rather see the original ruins rather than a modern day reconstruction trying to pass itself off as an ‘ancient’ building. Secondly most tourism sites are woefully lacking in historical context. Because without any context, these historic sites, that have witnessed incredible events, remain just piles of bricks, and everyone goes home none the wiser.
I’m not really going to touch on the issues of traffic jams, pollution, rip-off taxis, over-charging for services, different room rates for foreigners and locals and multitude of other scams. That’s just small beer in the big scheme of things, but does contribute to why a whopping 95% of foreign tourists (figures from The Economist 2010) said they would never return to Vietnam.
There are deeper reasons for the turn off, Vietnam just comes across, as a bit, at least as portrayed by official tourism PR work, well, as a bit….boring, you’ve done it once, no need to do it again. Tour operators complain that there’s been precious little development of ‘new products’ in Vietnam. Plus why does the country rely so heavily on heritage to sell itself? Check how much ‘tradition’ Seoul and Singapore put into their adverts guys!
Borneo tribespeople. Photo by Nguy Ha
Vietnam’s last TV advertising campaign featured a mid-twenties Western backpacker hanging out trying streetfood…is that really the target demographic for the Vietnamese tourism industry? By all means hail Vietnam’s food, it’s likely to become the ‘next big thing’ internationally, but I would have thought showing chirpy returning Viet Kieu couples, or nice smiley generic parents and their two kids experiencing the joys of travelling by elephant in the Central Highlands or trekking with H’mong kids in the north west, or even lazing on the beaches of Mui Ne or Phu Quoc as more appealing images to a general traveller, as not everyone is here to either soak in Vietnamese heritage, the American War – they’re on holiday after all!
The single Malay province of Sarawak alone probably hosts more variety in terms of holiday ‘products’ than the whole of Vietnam. With a base in Kuching you can do adventure tourism, indulge in hospitality at the Hilton Hotel, visit an annual international world music festival and stay with ethnic families, all along with the usual lazing around and culinary experiences, including local specialities that originated from the notorious Borneo tribal head hunters (thankfully no human ingredients included!).