It is time for a rewind to the beginning of this year when I was scrolling through the daily media updates and saw a blurb from a global publication informing readers that Da Nang, Vietnam was perched atop the list of world destinations most queried on Google for travel in 2020.
Not Paris, New York, Tokyo, not Rome nor Rio de Janeiro, rather our beloved Da Nang. We have all known about Vietnam’s emergence on the international travel stage over the last few years, but to see that group of all-stars upstaged gave me quite a jolt.
Then the dreaded virus hit, and the note I made got lost in the shuffle only to recently resurface in my pile of random tasks and forgotten things that I diligently track so they will not go astray, but they usually do.
It should not have been a surprise — I vividly recall my first glimpse of breathtaking My Khe Beach, then the Han River in the evening, flanked by beautifully-lit bridges, fine dining cruise boats plying the river, local people watching over an ice-cream at sidewalk cafés, and the Bach Dang promenade full of couples strolling and enjoying.
That Google rating prompted that daydream about Da Nang, but there are dozens of picturesque destinations to visit all around the country, with many more in development.
The capital Hanoi and former imperial capital Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island, the Mekong Delta, Phu Quoc, Hoi An, and a host of other sites in Vietnam all have a place on any global tourism map.
On top of that impressive list, the timing is just right as Vietnam sits squarely in the proverbial tourism 'sweet spot,' meaning there are plenty of reasonably priced accommodation, welcoming locals, great sights and activities, and foods to die for, while costs are still reasonable.
Infrastructure is limited in some areas because the country is still developing, but it is stable overall and constantly improving.
Electricity and water supplies are abundant, the Internet is average or better, except when those darned sharks eat the undersea cable, and major areas are connected by decent roads and highways.
The two largest airports in Vietnam, Tan Son Nhat in Ho Chi Minh City and Noi Bai in Hanoi, have been running over capacity for years with no remedy on the immediate horizon.
With several airlines from which to choose, prices are reasonable and many domestic and international routes have been added between other cities in Vietnam and abroad, thus taking some of the pressure off those two largest airports.
We all know that the budget carriers often run late due to the congestion, but there is no quick fix in sight, and the national flag carrier Vietnam Airlines usually gets priority. So we place our bets and hope for the best, or bite the bullet and pay the higher fares.
So, how was tourism trending here in Vietnam when we were so suddenly interrupted by COVID-19?
In 2019, international arrivals rose by 16 percent year-on-year to tally 18 million, continuing the dramatic upward trend in recent years.
Of those 18 million visitors to Vietnam last year, 5.8 million came from the People’s Republic of China, 4.3 million from South Korea, and just short of a million each from Japan and Taiwan.
Therefore, those four destinations were the source of roughly two-thirds of all overseas visitors, prompting me to refer to them as the 'Big Four,' thus belonging in the forefront of any discussion about reviving international tourism to Vietnam provided they have control over the pandemic.
Old risks fade away and new perils appear as cases and hotspots pop up in the Big Four without warning. A cluster of infections appeared last month in China’s capital Beijing and another recently surfaced in a remote northwestern region.
Japan is also suffering from a surge of new cases, while Taiwan and South Korea have a firm grip on the virus at this point.
Vietnam had been without locally transmitted infections for over three months, so even with recent new infections the government is in a strong negotiating position with other countries about who will be allowed to enter.
Discussion about when regular tourist traffic can resume is ongoing, but it is possible that airplanes will fly between some or all of those countries and Vietnam as early as next month.
The other hot issue is mandatory quarantine, which works for returning residents and those wishing to stay a while, but is impractical for tourists.
Who wants to go on a three- or four-week vacation and spend the first two holed up in a facility even if they can manage to stay at a swanky resort on the beach?
If approval for some or all of those countries is granted, flights to Vietnam will slowly ramp up, and hopefully at some point rapid COVID-19 tests prior to departure and upon arrival coupled with regular tests during visitors’ stays will replace quarantine.
Should virus cases start to spike the authorities will no doubt take the necessary measures to contain any spread, and they will do it quickly.
We have seen how the government has made shrewd decisions throughout the battle against the virus, and it has paid off handsomely.
Even if visitors from those selected countries were to return during the latter part of 2020 at the same rate they visited last year, the financial reward would not be worth the risk taken in hurriedly opening the borders.
We all want the borders to reopen as soon as possible so visitors stranded here and Vietnamese stuck overseas can get back home and businesses can operate normally as before.
That said, throwing away many months of effort from virtually everyone in the country for the sake of short-term gain is not worth the risk, and the number of virus hotspots that have popped up around the globe in places where reopening was hurried backs up that thinking.
The worst of all scenarios is to give the 'all clear' only to later learn it was too early, and must be undone, which is what is happening in a number of countries around the world.
International tourism contributes over six percent annually to Vietnam’s GDP with hundreds of thousands of livelihoods dependent on inbound tourists.
To put that in perspective, Portugal’s tourism industry contributes nearly 20 percent to its GDP, with Spain close behind, so despite the risks, they were both practically forced to reopen for the summer tourist boom without quarantine.
Closer to home, tourism in Thailand also accounts for nearly 20 percent of GDP, but its government is very cautiously working on plans to reopen the borders to tourists in stages.
Sadly, it is unlikely Vietnam will be welcoming many tourists from Europe, the Americas and Australia this year, if any at all.
Countries in those regions accounted for 15 percent of all arrivals in 2019, less than one-quarter of the 12 million visitors from the Big Four Asian neighbors, so we all must accept that priority goes to the lowest risk visitors who contribute the most to the economy.
What’s the longer-term outlook?
When the dust finally settles on the pandemic, and it may take a long time given the resurgence of cases that is happening in so many countries, then things look rosy going forward.
Not only can Vietnam pick up where it left off as a tourist destination that has emerged on the global map, the LowCo (low number of COVID-19 cases) status will become a highly-valued attribute as time goes on.
That top ranking on Google for Da Nang as a tourist destination was no fluke, and tourism will be back even stronger than before given Vietnam’s LowCo status, but it is going to require more time and patience from us all.