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Uncertainty, staffing shortage loom as Vietnam heads towards fully reopening to foreign tourists

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With the clock ticking towards Vietnam’s earlier announced reopening to international tourists on March 15, the government has yet to confirm which groups of travellers would be granted visas on arrival.

The country’s tourism ministry, meanwhile, has disagreed with the health ministry over new safety protocols for an industry worth $45 billion annually before the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ambiguity has been unsettling for the tourism industry, which is also grappling with a shortfall of workers after many left for more secure careers over the past two years.

According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the tourism industry shed 70 per cent to 80 per cent of its employees in 2020 after fears about virus transmission shuttered borders.

In the southern province of Kien Giang alone, the industry has lost 40 per cent of its workers and needs to recruit some 7,000 more to serve tourists once full demand bounces back.

“Many tourism workers have changed their careers. They have gained a stable income, so see no need to return to tourism,” Mr Bui Quoc Thai, director of Kien Giang Tourism Department, told The Sunday Times. “They have developed a mentality that is averse to risk and change.”

As a result, the province is grappling with a high percentage of untrained tourism staff, he said.

Kien Giang province is home to Phu Quoc island, one of the few localities the government opened to travellers on tour packages under a trial programme launched in November.

During this pilot phase, the government drew about 11,000 foreign travellers from November to last month, a minuscule proportion of the 18 million who arrived in 2019 before the pandemic.

Today, entry to Vietnam is limited mostly to foreigners who go there for work.

Mr Seif Hamdy, the general manager of InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort in central Vietnam, said there is a talent crunch in the industry.

“We have had so many people diverted into different businesses,” he told ST. “We really need to work very hard with all the investors and operators to regain the talents’ trust that there will be opportunities for them, there will be stability, and that they will be paid fairly well.”

Unlike many other establishments in the industry, his resort did not lay off any workers during the pandemic. And it is currently recruiting more.

The resort is getting inquiries rather than advance bookings from prospective foreign travellers.

The booking at the moment is still within a very short window, so we are talking about March for March, April for April,” said Mr Hamdy. “People will plan at the very last minute.”

This is because it is unclear what kind of tests and quarantines await visitors who arrive after March 15.

Like much of the region, Vietnam is seeing a surge in Covid-19 infections, with 131,780 domestic cases logged on Saturday (March 5). But its healthcare system is holding up as more than 78 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.

While the Ministry of Health wants visitors coming after March 15 to be quarantined for the first three days after arrival unless they do daily Covid-19 tests, the tourism ministry – conscious of the need to match the quarantine-free protocols of Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore – feels that visitors should be free to go after they test negative upon arrival.

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh will have to make the final call, reported local publication Viet Nam News on Saturday.

South-east Asia’s tourism industry is poised for recovery but the governments have to send the right message, said Ms Sumaira Isaacs, chief executive of the London-based World Tourism Forum Institute.

They need to emphasise that their doors are open to foreign tourists, she added.

“What is happening is that they are so busy figuring out the protocol, they forget the messaging part,” she told ST.

By Tan Hui Yee – The Straits Times – March 5, 2022

Uncertainty, staffing shortage loom as Vietnam heads towards fully reopening to foreign tourists
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