How sustainable is the present tourist model in its current form and at what cost?
Luang Prabang, the old imperial city in Laos, is on a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its beauty and serenity is unsurpassed in Asia. Yet how long will it last before it will be discovered by mass tourism and commercialization? The destruction of the local culture will be a foregone conclusion and what made Luang Prabang famous will inevitably lead to its downfall unless measures are taken to preserve the local architecture, culture and building codes. The people of Siam Reap and their surrounding area for instance, on the periphery of famous Angkor Wat temple would be destined to rice farming and the illegal timber logging would it not be for the development of a tourist infrastructure that brings to Cambodia desperate needed foreign currencies and elevating people into a higher social echelon. Tourism in India, Laos, Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam lifts thousands of people out of poverty and provides families with a sustainable income they would otherwise not have.
The question was raised at the beginning of this paper what do tourists want? Europeans and American tourist want to go to Asia to experience the "Suzie Wong" of Hong Kong. They want to see and feel the exotic and unspoiled Asia, the innocent Asia of ornate temples and gilded Buddha statues, taste authentic local food and swim in the pristine waters of the Andaman Sea. Governments have a responsibility to preserve their cultural heritage and national tourist assets to generate a sustainable income. The skylines of Asia's mega cities are dotted with anonymous glass and steel building without character and soul. Shanghai, Beijing, Jakarta and Bangkok resemble more Manhattan or Toronto and have only a minuscule Asian identity. What makes Sydney a world class destination? What are the key drivers that differentiate Sydney from, let's say Jakarta! Is it the Harbor Bridge spanning Darling Harbor, overlooking the Sydney Opera House, Bondi Beach or access to world class hotel facilities and an excellent infrastructure? Or is it the quality of air people breathe? The simple answer is a combination of all and a value proposition that is unique and impossible to imitate.
Asia is overwhelmed with attractive tourist destinations promising relaxation, cultural diversity, sophisticated entertainment or adrenalin bumping adventure. From a consumer's standpoint, given the choice to spend leisure time on the beach in Bali, Phuket or Koh Samui can be very daunting indeed. If one does not seek the beach, alternative options such as cultural excursions that broadens one's intellectual horizon (anthropologists love to go to Bali, Laos or Papua New Guinea to search for lost hill tribes) or adventure trips and trekking through the impenetrable jungles of Malaysia or Borneo. Whether it is observing the Komodo dragons in their natural habitat on Komodo Island or searching for daring headhunters in Iran Jaya, these all provide feasible alternatives in a congested market. The choice of destination for the intrepid traveler is almost infinite. Vietnam made a successful attempt in the last five years to carve out a niche for itself in the burgeoning tourist industry in South East Asia. So what differentiates Vietnam, or what is Vietnam's competitive advantage vis-à-vis over other destination with a very similar geographic composition? The pros and con's can be argued for a long time. What cannot be argued is that Vietnam after 30 years of warfare, stagnant economic growth and state controlled monetary policies awakened a decade ago and became a force to be reckoned with in the international tourist arena.
A classical case in point is how serious tourism is taken in Botswana's famous Okavango Delta. The delta spreads out over 15,000 square kilometers, it is the largest inland delta in the world and this unique biotope attracts annually thousands of tourists to marvel at its wildlife. Scientist study its distinctive fauna and flora, the ecology and diverse wildlife, disturbing it would have disastrous consequences for the scientific community. The Okavango delta is the second largest foreign currency generator after the lucrative diamond trade in this land locked African country. The authorities recognized its commercial tourist values and protect it with tough legislations to preserve it for future generations.
Cuba's alluring (and often mystic) appeal to international tourism is not the (commercialized beach life) in Varadero nor is it the Rum or Cohiba and Monte Christo's cigars - which are available almost everywhere else in the world except the USA. Cuba's attractions are manifold; they are psychological as they are emotive. Old Havana is one of the oldest cities founded by European "Conquistadores" over 500 years ago. Cuba, and in particular Havana, conjures images of a passage of a time long gone, a place where time stood still. Its Spanish architecture dominates the city of Havana and UNESCO recognizes its cultural value. Tourists who visit Cuba, become overwhelmed by nostalgia. They associate Havana reminiscing of a different world characterized by casinos and a vibrant night live - a Cuba of Hemingway and Mohitos, Graham Green Novels and Studebaker or other vintage cars and last but not least Spanish architecture. The government of Cuba recognizes its responsibility in preserving this uniqueness and consequently promotes it in the international tourist arena to obtain much needed foreign currency. Demolishing these old buildings and replacing them with modern shopping malls, office towers and international hotels would be tantamount to denying and forfeiting of one's cultural heritage. Parallels of a similar thinking process can be drawn to other cities in Europe. Tourists visit Rome and Athens to see the Colosseum, the St. Peter Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, the Forum Romanum and the Pantheon et cetera and the Acropolis respectively for their historical and cultural value they evoke and not to visit shopping malls or marvel at glass and steel edifices without character and value. The same thought would apply to London, Prague, Paris and Vienna for instance. Government authorities realize the contribution of these historical national tourist assets have on their overall tourism strategy in competing and differentiating themselves with other nations. Drawing parallels to the hotel industry are easily identifiable. The Ritz hotels in Paris, London and Madrid are popular among wealthy American and Asian tourist (and not corporate accounts) for the historic value they conjure up. No better is this illustrated in the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz in Paris. Patrons want to feel part of history - of something larger than life.
HCM City and Hanoi have a good functioning infrastructure coupled with world class accommodation (multiple award winning hotels with cutting-edge technology) and function space and international gourmet restaurants. Another interesting element these two cities have to offer are the unique characteristics of its people, friendly, open-minded and hardworking; embracing the winds of economic and social change that blows their way.
The "Saigonese" claim a rightful position that makes it is easy to do business here. This is no more illustrated than in the fashion and food industry. Some of the finest Vietnamese restaurants can be found in Paris or San Francisco. Proud fashion designers and fashion pioneers return to HCMC from self-imposed exile in Europe or the USA to build and cement their reputation in Vietnam. Combined with an exciting entertainment and cultural offering, innovative (fashion) designs, an interesting art scene and competitive travel deals, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are as competitive or even more than any other modern Asian metropolis. Vietnam strives for a level playing field where the odds are staked equally fair for all parties. This may not have been the case in the past for a variety of reasons such as budget constraints, erroneous fund allocation, lack of infrastructure, capacity constraints and inadequate resource allocation.
The city state of Singapore is an example that reinvents itself constantly in face of the changing competitive environment in Asia. Whether it is the Night Safari in its acclaimed Zoo or the varying leisure landscape of Sentosa Island or Universal Studio - Singapore is changing in order to make itself more attractive. With the recent addition of the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort, the ante has been raised again. India is following with "Incredible India" so it is time for Vietnam's "Hidden Charm" campaign to be featured more aggressively and prominently.
The Worldwide Tourism Industry: A Social Phenomenon
For decades nations have feuded to increase their share of the lucrative tourist market - an industry that generates billions of dollars in emerging countries, notwithstanding providing employment opportunities for millions of people - very often disfranchised people who live a life on the fringes of society. For many of these poor people, tourism is the main source of income. Competition for destinations and wealthy tourists with top dollars to spend will only intensify as new tourist destinations emerge. Timor Leste is a classical example. A country that did not exist 15 years ago is in the process of rolling out a tourism strategy to woo brave travelers to its pristine beaches.
Tourism in countries like Thailand provide up to 8% of GDP, it is even higher in Egypt, Nepal, the Maldives, Macao (if one counts gambling as a leisure activity) Kenya and many other developing nations. Isolated political problems aside, tourism has experienced continued growth and deepening diversification to become one of the fastest growing economic sectors in the world. The evolution of modern tourism has a direct correlation to infrastructure development, construction projects and significantly contributes to an increase in international trade and commerce. These dynamics have turned tourism into a key driver for socio-economic progress. According to the World Tourism Organization, the business volume of tourism equals or even surpasses that of oil exports, food products or the manufacturing of automobiles.
- From 1950 to 2005, international tourism arrivals expanded at an annual rate of 6.5%, growing from 25 million to 806 million travelers.
- The income generated by these arrivals grew at an even stronger rate reaching around US$ 680 billion in 2005.
- While in 1950 the top 15 destinations absorbed 88% of the international arrivals, in 1970 the proportion was 75% and decreased to 57% in 2005, reflecting the emergence of new destinations, many of them in developing countries.
- By 2020 international arrivals are expected to surpass 1.5 billion people
The Role of Governments
Tourism is not a panacea for the economical and political ills of a country but it provides an avenue for consistent GDP growth, tax income, reduces unemployment and provides opportunities for young people, provided a nation has the right cultural and geographic endowments that make it attractive for tourists. In this case, Vietnam is seriously attracting investors and developers in its tourism infrastructure and projects to boost economic growth. Sustainable competitive advantage and a well thought out national tourism strategy cannot be created overnight. It is a combination of policy making, collaborative effort of engaging the private sector and public service management and a vision to create something truly special and lasting that results in prosperity and wealth for its citizen. Vietnam has the right combination of tourist assets, cultural endowments, a vibrant and liberal art scene, a colorful heritage and the political and economical desire to join its south-east Asian neighbors to compete for tourist Dollars. The below graph illustrates how a working relationship with the various business partners, who have all vital stakes in a healthy tourism infrastructure, should function. Strategic oversight of this "Tourism Task Force" rests with the Ministry of Tourism that coordinates promoting activities between government and the private sector. The Convention and Visitors Bureau has strong interest promoting and generating awareness of destination's business attractions such as MICE institutions - thus everybody is engaged.
Awareness creation for a destination is not a one off undertaking and then left to languish. Designing an unforgettable marketing campaign is time consuming and expensive and requires an innovate touch - a feel for the market. But it is more expensive to do nothing and have a laissez-faire approach hoping for the best. An appropriate analogy would be a comparison to the product life cycle of a consumer product. The life cycle can be extended by constantly reinventing a product and designing an advertising campaign that meets the ever changing demands of the end consumer - in this case the tourist. "Malaysia truly Asia" and "Amazing Thailand" are two very successful marketing campaigns that remain almost unchanged for the last ten years.
In summary it can be said that managing a state driven marketing campaign is like running a business and as such, can benefit from adopting a strategic marketing management approach. This is not to ignore the much greater cultural and political complexity of running a nation - it is complimentary. Nor is this the same as saying that a nation should run itself as a planned economy. There has to be an element of flexibility built in as economic and social parameters can and will change. The marketing of a nation is not a static undertaking, economic and social circumstances keep on changing, the political landscape changes and above all, the demands on protecting the environment change. Strategic marketing management is a continuous self-correcting process that consistently considers where a nation is heading, where it wants to be heading and how best to get there. In a pluralistic and politically mature society, the different political parties have to overcome their disagreements, diverse agendas and pass appropriate legislation to protect the interest of the nation. Lawmakers have to overcome their bipartisan ideologies, their strategic alliances and political preferences for the greater good of the state.
The thoughts expressed in this article are those of the author only.
 World Tourism Organization (UNWOTO)