Nguyen Thanh Thuy, owner of a cao lau (thick Vietnamese noodles) eatery on Tran Phu Street in tourist hotspot Hoi An, is worried she might have to close down her business permanently since things have been very dull after the Covid-19 lockdown was lifted.
She has already laid off four workers to cut costs.
She says: “I understand it would take time for the tourism industry to recover fully, but I don’t think I can hold out much longer.
“It is pointless for me to wait and wait”.
Not far from her food stall, Nguyen Huu Tho tries to sell his boat tour on the Thu Bon River to every visitor passing by, but no one is interested.
“I have had only five customers this week,” he says while gazing at the empty pedestrians-only street.
The two are among many pandemic-hit tourism businesses struggling to hold on with few tourists in sight and earnings of next to nothing.
Though Vietnam reopened its doors to foreign tourists last November and allowed many domestic tourist activities to resume, Covid's long-lasting impacts have left many tourism businesses and workers wondering when people will start traveling again and if they can sustain their businesses if the pandemic drags on.
The country, which expects to receive five million foreign visitors under the vaccine passport program in 2022, has received more than 8,000 since reopening in November, 2021.
Passengers get off a Vietnam Airlines plane arriving from Cambodia at Tan Son Nhat Airport in HCMC on January 1, 2022, the first regular commercial flight to Vietnam in two years. Photo courtesy of Vietnam Airlines
Le Thanh Hoa, owner of a hotel on Phu Quoc Island, says she laid off five employees late last year and might let a few more go as bookings remain sparse even in the new year.
“We simply could not afford to keep all the staff when we were not generating any income”.
Her hotel received 50 guests in the first week of 2022 as people flocked to Phu Quoc for the long New Year weekend.
Kien Giang Province, home to Phu Quoc Island, received over 36,000 domestic tourists in the first three days of the year, a slight decrease from last year.
But within a week there was a dramatic change with the number of guests at Hoa’s hotel plummeting though it was still the peak holiday season.
She says her hotel used to be packed with Russian tourists this time of the year as they sought to escape of the winter back home and enjoy the warm weather here in Phu Quoc. Some would stay for a few days, and some for up to two weeks.
“We have over 100 vacant rooms, while the number of new inquiries is just around 5 percent of what we received before the pandemic”.
She thinks tourism revival is still a pipe dream since travel demand is low even among local tourists as “people still have a cautious mindset and are unwilling to resume traveling domestically”.
Many other popular tourism destinations also saw fewer tourists during the New Year holidays.
Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, home to beach town Vung Tau, saw visitor numbers fall 32 percent from last year to 88,700 during the three-day break.
Da Lat in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong received only 55,000 tourists, down 11.6 percent.
In the north, where the pandemic is raging, things are even grimmer with numbers in free fall.
Thanh Truc spent heavily on online advertisements for her hotel in Sa Pa Town in the northern mountains during the year-end season.
Besides, she and many other resort and hotel owners in town had been offering deals with big discounts to attract more visitors.
“I was happy to see decent booking numbers, with 20 families making reservations,” she says.
But many canceled the bookings at the last minute after Lao Cai Province, home to Sa Pa, required visitors from areas with high risk of Covid like Hanoi to quarantine for seven days.
This sent visitor numbers plunging by 70 percent from a year earlier year to just 30,200.
“This has been a huge disaster for all of us in the tourism industry,” Truc says, adding she has a negative balance in her bank account.
Backing out and taking chances
With Covid bringing the travel industry to a near-complete standstill, people who built their careers in the tourism and hospitality sectors have lost their jobs or seen their work hours and incomes reduced.
According to official statistics, last November more than 9,000 tour guides who had lost their jobs each received government relief of VND3.71 million ($163.73).
Many do side jobs or have simply changed careers, doing whatever they need to do to survive.
Le Trong Hung does not plan to return to his old job as a tour guide for foreigners, saying, “I don’t know when this pandemic will end and when people are likely to start traveling”.
The man from Hanoi’s Ba Dinh District now makes a living by selling dried fruits and snacks online. Though he does not earn as much as he used to, he says it is safer since “the pandemic threat has not subsided”.
He says many of his colleagues face the same plight, with many now becoming delivery workers or selling coffee on street corners to survive.
Some leisure and hospitality businesses have no plans to resume anytime soon.
A bar on Bui Vien still has many empty chairs as it reopens after months of closure on January 10, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Quy
Though HCMC has allowed nighttime activities to resume, Nguyen Thanh Nam, owner of a pub on Bui Vien Street, says he closed it in May and does not plan to reopen it yet.
“I cannot reopen and close again and again. Besides, not many foreigners are back in Saigon, and so I will have few patrons if I reopen now”.
After the city detected three Omicron community cases on Jan. 19 tourism workers fear a new outbreak might delay or even derail Vietnam’s tourism recovery plans.
“The tourism sector might not recover fully until the pandemic is completely over,” Nam says.
In Hoi An, Thuy admits she is still luckier than most people since her eatery remains open despite the waves of Covid that “swept away” many businesses in town.
In a place where once tourists from across the globe walked elbow to elbow, only a few businesses remain open now. The rest are shut, leaving streets quiet and desolate under the baking sun.
Thuy's husband has joined friends to work as a fisherman to earn some extra money for the family.
“I know people would love to travel after being cooped up for so long. I will try to sustain this until they come to Hoi An again”.
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