It bothered me when I read that Ha Noi had been ranked as the world's cheapest city for tourists by a prestigious US web-based travel service, TripAdvisor.
To capital city residents struggling with escalating prices, which seem to be much higher than in other cities throughout Viet Nam, the ranking is almost meaningless.
However, I thought it could be good news for the ancient city, given budget tourism is probably a preferred choice for many world tourists during the global economic downturn. But I've begun to realise that cheapness can be a bit one-sided. In terms of profits, low prices bring in less foreign cash.
This view is shared by head of the Institute for Tourism Development Research, Dr Ha Van Sieu. He sees the ranking as an impediment to the national longer-term target.
"The national tourism strategy for the next 10 years will focus on quality by offering travellers high-end products," Sieu says. "This is aimed at attracting people who can pay more – and stay longer to enjoy the special values of our country. Viet Nam welcomes a large number of tourists, but the profit per tourist is not high – and neither are the socio-environmental impacts."
Sieu says the new ranking may attract groups of low-budget tourists, including back-packers, but is not a good choice for mass marketing. "If being cheap means minimising such costs as those involved in management or marketing, it would be highly welcome. But I must say that these costs remain high.
"So, what they see as cheap is merely the result of the low price of input materials, such as food and labour. But this does not promise high quality," Sieu says. "We are not interested in whether a trip is cheap or expensive, what we are more concerned about is whether it is reasonable or not."
He says "reasonable" means that tourists happily accept the products and services they pay for. This encourages them to stay longer and spend more.
So what is the meaning of the ranking? Will it help Ha Noi become a big tourist- dollar earner? I don't think so. Ha Noi is a city rich in culture. It boasts thousands of historical relics and each year has hundreds of festivals. Ancient royal ramparts, citadels and colonial architecture, a typical Asian lifestyle and rare cultural experiences such as the water puppets or ca tru (ceremonial singing) distinguish Ha Noi from many other Vietnamese cities.
Traveller Tiffany Blover from Sydney, Australia, is full of praise for Ha Noi food and culture. "It is different from other Asian destinations, such as Bali, which is a full-on tourist location, or Bangkok, which has raucous sex tourism. Ha Noi is a nice place. It offers authentic culture," she says while strolling around Hoan Kiem Lake yesterday afternoon.
The number of tourists visiting Ha Noi each year remains at about 10 million. Only a fifth of them are foreign visitors, the rest are people from other parts of Viet Nam. Compare this with Bangkok, which had almost 16 million international arrivals in 2010, and 19.1 million in 2011 despite large-scale flooding and political turmoil.
Blover, like many foreign tourists, thinks Ha Noi is beautiful, but does not plan to stay more than two nights. A tour agent from Thang Long Tour says most foreign tourists find there is nothing much to see apart from a few days around the Old Quarter. Tour agents also lament that most visitors say there is nowhere to spend money around this "cheapest city", due to a shortage of entertainment.
Sieu says tourists will only stay longer if they are enjoying themselves. He says there is a lack of a focus on tourism in Viet Nam. For example, he says little has been done to develop the colourful Tong Duy Tan Street on the edge of the Old Quarter. "Money should be invested in the area to make it a centre for Vietnamese cuisine," he says.
Policy-makers are ambitious to turn Ha Noi into a spearhead for the tourism industry in the next couple of years, but pessimism reigns.
Dr Nguyen Quang Lan, chairman of the Ha Noi Tourism Association, suggests that to enable Ha Noi to raise its tourist potential, the most important thing is to change the mind-set of leaders at all levels.
Until there are more places to go and things to buy, see and eat, no rankings will make much difference to the city's tourism.
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