Concern for Vietnam tourism industry as staff shortages and sky high airfares divert international travellers to other destinations

Travel and tourism experts warn staff shortages in the travel industry and soaring airfares are damaging for Vietnam as a holiday destination

Attendees at the Australian Chamber of Commerce’s July Business Briefing Breakfast held at the Sofitel Saigon Plaza in Ho Chi Minh City have heard that factors both within Vietnam and abroad, such as staff shortages and soaring airfares, are having a negative effect on Vietnam’s inbound travel industry.

Speaking as a panelist at the Chamber’s monthly breakfast briefing series in front of a large gathering, Wendy Vu, Country Manager for Vietnam and Cambodia at Qatar Airways, expressed not just her frustration, but also Vietnam’s travel industry at-large, with the sluggish momentum towards a return to pre-Covid 19 levels of service after the pandemic savaged the global travel industry.

A lot of pilots left to work in other industries and don’t want to come back

“Domestically speaking, thanks to the easing of restrictions, people are easily getting around,” said Ms Vu, adding that Vietnam’s swift decision to open borders earlier in the year have helped immensely.

“But people now have this urgency to travel after two years at home,” she continued, “and while facilities in Vietnam are well-maintained, particularly middle and high-end facilities like restaurants and hotels, the problem right now is with staff strength, you can’t expect the quality of service that we enjoyed before the pandemic.”

Hoi An. PHOTO: Peter Borter via Unsplash

Vietnam has an ambitious plan to welcome five million international tourists by year’s end, however, that target may well be difficult to hit, particularly as airlines and airports around the world struggle to scale up from nothing as travel returns with a vengeance.

“Travel demand is rocketing, so we’re seeing massive disruption at airports, especially in Europe and the US at the moment,” said Ms Vu. “Airports, for example, just don’t have the manpower to even handle the sorting of luggage. Airlines like ours aren’t fully-operational yet, we’re in the process of rehiring and training. Even for very experienced pilots, they need time for retraining and to get familiar with aircraft again. A lot of pilots left to work in other industries and don’t want to come back.

Panelist Linh Le, principal and co-founder of Luxperia DMC Collective, a boutique luxury travel agency based in Ho Chi Minh City, was upbeat however with his assessment for the year in travel.

“We’re in a year where the industry is in recovery,” he said when asked what can be done in the immediate future to take tourism in Vietnam to the next level. “What I’m finding is the recovery hasn’t been as fast as one would’ve hoped for, but the good news is that the domestic market is something that has truly saved the industry here in Vietnam. From an international point of view, it certainly is coming back, but we have macroeconomic and geopolitical issues here and around the world to consider. I’m very optimistic that by 2023, it’s going to be our true year of return in Vietnam.” 

Mu Cang Chai. PHOTO: Hai Tran via Unsplash

Vietnam has been praised internationally for its efforts in managing its response to the Covid-19 pandemic over the past two and half years, now the travel industry is hoping the country can come up with ways to make travel here more enticing so that things can rebound quickly. 

“A lot of DMCs (Destination Management Companies) are struggling at the moment,” explained Ms Vu, who believes travel won’t fully resume until at least the end of 2023 or even into early 2024. “They’re looking forward to the day business improves, until then, they’ll continue to promote Vietnam as a country of love, hospitality and beauty and wait for tourists to come back.”

Nevertheless, even if things turn around quickly, there’s serious concern as to whether Vietnam’s travel sector can actually handle a sudden influx of international travelers anyway. 

According to panel moderator, Dr Nuno Ribeiro, a senior lecturer and research cluster lead in hospitality and tourism management within the School of Business and Management at RMIT Vietnam, tourism pre-pandemic represented in the vicinity of 11% – 14% of Vietnam’s GDP, while approximately one in every 11 jobs was either directly or indirectly related to tourism.

However, from the onset of the pandemic, those jobs suddenly disappeared leaving people to look for employment elsewhere, exposing them to other industries and career pathways in the meantime.

PHOTO: AusCham Vietnam. L to R: Matt Cowan, Linh Truong, Wendy Vu, Linh Le

As a result, many haven’t returned as borders have reopened due to various reasons, among them disillusionment with the travel industry and simply because they are content in the new careers they have discovered. 

This has left a gaping hole across the country desperately needing to be filled, not necessarily with experienced talent, although that’s preferable, but rather by anyone willing to take a shot at either a short-term or long-term career in hospitality and tourism.

Already this is causing issues as Vietnam’s domestic tourism booms, leaving airports, airlines, hotels and resorts sorely understaffed, in turn leading to delays and a severe decline in service quality.

While on one hand some industry insiders say the shortage in staff is the most concerning aspect of the future of tourism in Vietnam, others see the issue as being deeper than simply finding and training up staff. 

They argue rapid development is exacerbating issues in relation to sustainable tourism.

VinWonders Phu Quoc. PHOTO: CreateTravel.tv via Unsplash

In 2020, Vietnam ranked 96 out of 99 in Euromonitor’s Sustainable Travel Index, which measured indicators such as health, impact of travel on the local environment, and the general state of tourism in a country. 

The same report highlighted Vietnam’s poor ranking of 88 out of 99 countries in relation to the measurement of sustainable tourism demand.

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With this in mind, panelist Linh Truong, co-founder and deputy director of Terraverde Travel & Events, a Vietnam-based travel company that promotes responsible travel and who has invested in the likes of electric bicycles for their tours, acknowledged Vietnam’s situation. 

“Vietnam is struggling with plastic and it’s a pressing issue that needs to be addressed soon,” she said. “Sustainability should be addressed from the top down in terms of policy making, education and waste management.”

Linh Le agreed with Ms Truong: “It’s something that needs to be holistic. It’s not just about the tourism industry or operators to fix the problem, it should involve education in the school system, and from an individual business owner’s point of view, it starts with me. I think it’s very important that we educate, but also understand how people like me can influence and help my team learn so that they can influence their networks.”

Indeed, this will prove to be yet another challenge for the industry in a country where the concept of sustainable travel among young generations of Vietnamese appears to be either poorly understood or just simply unknown.

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