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Vietnam emerging as Southeast Asia's new tourist hot spot

Tommy Walker in Bangkok
July 5, 2023

As tourism rebounds after COVID, industry experts say Vietnam is becoming a favored destination for travelers to Asia. However, Thailand looks to remain No. 1 for the foreseeable future.

An aerial view of boats in a cliff lined bay
Halong Bay is one of Vietnam's top tourist drawsImage: Alexandra Schuler/dpa/picture alliance

Vietnam has fast become one of the most popular destinations in Southeast Asia, as tourists enjoy the county's diverse landscapes, beaches, mountainous rice terraces and bustling cities.

According to a report by Google Destination Insights, Vietnam was the seventh most searched destination from March to June, and the only country in Southeast Asia in the top 20.

The popularity of Vietnam is showing in the number of international arrivals. The Vietnam National Administration of Tourism announced in June that the country had welcomed over 5.5 million foreign visitors in the first six months of 2023, already exceeding the total number of international arrivals in 2022.

More tourist growth predicted for Vietnam

Vietnam's tourist sector has set a target of 8 million visitors for the remainder of 2023, however, the tourism bureau has since predicted the numbers will likely rise to 10 million.

Bobby Nguyen, chairman of Rustic Hospitality Group, a tour agency, told DW that the boost is coming mainly from Chinese, Indian and Korean tourists.

"China has reopened the outbound market to Vietnam and the Indian market has grown since 2022," he said.

Nguyen added that the use of social media and the influence of large travel groups have also helped boost Vietnam's international popularity.

"Having many online communication channels such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok or promotion channels on Google or other networking channels is also the fastest way to promote Vietnam's image to the world," he said.

Vietnam's improved visa policy expected to boost tourism

Hanoi recently approved a new visa policy for international visitors arriving in the country, tripling visa waivers from 15 to 45 days for selected countries.

And for visitors from countries eligible to apply for an electronic visa to Vietnam, visas will now be valid for up to 90 days with single or multiple entries.

The changes will come into force on August 15.

Gearing up for the return of Chinese tourists

Gary Bowerman, a tourism analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, said the visa changes will boost the tourism sector.

"It's picking up, and over the next six months, you will see travelers to Vietnam increase. I think it's going to be very strong, and you'll see growth particularly now the Chinese market is back," he told DW.

One of Vietnam's selling points is that it's a lesser-known destination, and it offers both tourism and business opportunities, said Bowerman.

"A lot of younger people now want to learn a bit more about the country. I think there's a lot about Vietnam that isn't very well-known. I think Thailand is probably better known. There is a sense of discovery and mysticism about Vietnam. It is the country where people want to invest, where they want to do business, and they want to travel," he added.

Vietnam's travel industry looks forward

For travel companies in Vietnam, the new visa policy and prospect of more international arrivals is exciting.

"I'm looking forward to seeing what happens," said Max Lambert, owner of Fuse Hostels & Travel.

Fuse launched two hostels in the popular city of Hoi An late last year, but Lambert already believes his company is operating near to what pre-pandemic levels would have been.

A shot of colored lights on water
The city of Hoi An on Vietnam's central coast is famous for its lanternsImage: Insung Choi/Zoonar/picture alliance

"We're seeing in the last three months a substantial uptick in the number of international guests staying in hostels," he told DW, adding that bookings are back to 2019 levels.

"I think the hangover from the COVID pandemic, for our end of the market, is pretty much over," he said.

Thailand still holds top spot 

However, international arrivals into Vietnam are still way off pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, there were nearly 19 million international arrivals.

It means Vietnam has still some way to go if it's going to rival tourism in Thailand, said Lambert.

"Thailand is still getting more number growth. Thailand is the big player in the region, it's going to take a long time for Vietnam to get to that level," he said.

Tourism operator Nguyen said Vietnam must improve in several areas to fully maximize its potential.

"Tourism is an integrated economy, the coordination between ministries and sectors must be close. The infrastructure, including the system of highways, railways, and roads, does not meet the development of tourism," he said.

"It is necessary to retrain and train new personnel working in the tourism industry to meet the quality of services provided to tourists," he added.

Thailand expects to reach 20 million visitors by the end of 2023. However, Thailand's tourism industry is aiming for a return to 2019 levels, when the country welcomed a record 39 million international arrivals.

"Thailand has reclaimed its place as the most visited country in the region and the dominant tourism nation in the region. And that won't change. Tourism to Thailand is doing really well," said analyst Bowerman.

"However, before the pandemic, Vietnam was really seen as not necessarily a challenger, but certainly an emerging force. Vietnam was seen as the next big thing in tourism in Southeast Asia. I think it still is," he added.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco