The AFP has reported that the global economic crisis has hit Vietnamese tourism targets hard, and despite showing impressive year on year growth for the last few years it is no longer thought Vietnam will hit its target of 5 million visitors in 2008.
Despite a great start to the year with tourism figures up considerably on the previous year economic issues have clearly encouraged people to downscale their travel plans which lead to a 13% drop in tourists in October compared to the previous year and a 22% drop in November - although this dramatic fall is thought to have also been a result of the airport closures in Bangkok affecting mobility in the region as a whole.
It is predicted that next year the tourist industry will see zero growth. The Vietnamese tourist industry is worth $3 billion in GDP and employs 10% of the Vietnamese workforce so the impact could be severe.
Interestingly, the article also notes the Vietnamese Business Forum claims cutting down on Vietnam's visa regulations could increase tourism as much as 10% by encouraging more last minute trips within the region.
The Perfume Pagoda - which is often visited as a daytrip from Hanoi - was one of my first trips into the Vietnamese countryside and one I remember very fondly. Visiting the pagoda entails a very scenic boat trip up the Tay river, surrounded by lush green limestone hills as local villagers collect water hyacinth and lotus flowers from the river banks, to Huong Son, the Perfume mountain.
Once you arrive at the foot of the mountain there is a steady climb up ancient stone steps through the forest (or the option of a cable car if you are so inclined) with plenty of stops for rest and refreshment along the way. At a lower level there are a couple of stone pagodas, yet if you climb all the way to the top you are rewarded by a beautiful cave nestled inside the mountain, with prayer flags hanging like bunting across the entrance and thick clouds of fragrant incense smoke filling the air.
The temple inside the grotto, Huong Tich, was built around 1700 AD by a monk who found the site during his search for enlightenment. Over the years since many more shrines and temples have been built in the area, and a typical pilgrim may take as many as three days to explore them all.
The week long siege at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok has ended after a court ruled to dissolve the current government coalition and the PM stepped down from office. The first flight touched down yesterday bringing 300 passengers from Phuket, raising hopes for the 300,000 passengers who have been stranded.
Differing reports suggest it will take from two days and eleven days to get the airport fully functioning again as it must be cleaned, swept for any dangerous materials and computer systems must be started again. In the meantime many flights to Thailand are being routed via Phuket.
Vietnam Visitor Numbers
Over the past ten years Vietnam has seen an extrodinary growth in tourist numbers - a 286% rise since 1998, and in recent years growth has been as 20% compared to the previous year.
This year growth in visitor numbers is expected to fall as a result of the combined effects of the global recession and the 30% inflation that rocked the country early in the year, coupled with massive hikes in the price of fuel resulting in higher tour and accommodation prices. Prices have since begun to fall across the country, and many hotels have reduced their prices, but as advertising for 2009 tours has already begun in the US and Europe these falls in price have come a little too late for package tourists, though they will still benefit independent travellers.
Despite these challenges visitor numbers for 2008 are predicted to reach up to 4,350,000 - a 3.5-4% growth compared to last year, and it is reported that the Vietnam Administration of Tourism will soon begin running worldwide television adverts
Tet, which this year falls towards the end of January, is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year and shares the same dates as Chinese New Year. It is the most important festival in Vietnam, symbolising a period of change and renewal, where people clean their houses, buy new clothes and prepare for the new year.
It is also the most important festival to spend with your family in your hometown, and since an enormous number of people living in the cities in Vietnam have migrated from the countryside to find work this means it is also the busiest period of the year for transport, with buses, planes (both domestic and international) and trains are filled to bursting with travellers making their way home to celebrate the season with their families.
The Thanh Nien newspaper reports today that queues at the Ho Chi Minh City railway station are already extremely long despite attempts to improve efficiency through a SMS ordering system. The station itself expects to only be able to meet 30% of demand for tickets in the week before Tet.
The trains are the preferred mode of transport at Tet due to the high prices of air travel and buses being unpopular due to the long transit times and fears over safety. It's a good reminder that if you plan to travel during, before or after Tet you should make your bookings as early as possible for both transport and accommodation.
Incidentally there is an Vietnam Railways office on Pham Ngu Lau where you may book tickets - you may find queues here are somewhat shorter.