Before Covid-19, the cruise industry in Vietnam was considered potential but has not yet been developed commensurately. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has occurred since the beginning of 2020, is a big barrier for the tourism sector in general and the cruise industry in particular. All ports in Vietnam also had to close for cruise ships. After nearly 2 years, the cruise industry in the world has been gradually resuming, so what does Vietnam need to prepare to catch up with the global market and exploit the potential of cruises?
Destination Review had an opportunity to talk with Mr. Phan Xuan Anh, Chairman of Viet Excursions, about the state of the cruise industry in the world as well as in Vietnam in the past time and some to keep an eye on when reopening to cruises.
Before the pandemic, it can be said that there was no industry had developed as strongly as the cruise industry. At first, cruise travel was only for the rich, but after a while, many cruise lines grew, and they built more and more ships with ones that could carry up to thousands of passengers, then expanded to provide services for the middle class. Large cruise companies began to open more cruise lines, expanded their operations to many other countries. Not only the West, but Asian countries have also begun to develop this type of tourism. The cruise industry has developed explosively with the establishment of a series of cruise lines, especially high-class ones.
The industry has grown so well thanks to some key factors. Firstly, passengers can stay on the ships for months without having to move heavy luggage, no need to move from one airport to another, and no need to check-in at each destination. In general, the troublesome processes are reduced for cruise tourists, especially since the rich tourists usually require more convenience. That is the advantage that cruises can offer. Besides, on a cruise, passengers can go through 30 countries, even 100 countries depending on the journey, without having to change flights or rooms. Even within 2 or 3 days, they can reach another country. In addition, the facilities and entertainments on the ship are also better than on the plane. There are movie rooms, swimming pools, restaurants, wedding rooms, etc. The ship is like a floating city with all the amenities.
The cruise industry has been blooming, but unfortunately, when Covid-19 happened, everything changed. In the past, people were very glad to welcome cruise ships, but in the Covid period, whether the ship could enter the port or not had to be discussed carefully, any opposed opinion can make the ship not allowed to dock. The lack of consistency between localities and between agencies during the pandemic makes things confusing. But because this is an unprecedented period, no one has experienced it, and no one knows enough about the pandemic to handle it, so it’s hard to blame anyone.
Regarding the pre-pandemic period, the cruise industry in Vietnam has not been properly appreciated the potential and benefits it can bring. When a ship carries tourists to a destination, tourists don’t just hang out at day and sleep on the ship at night as people often think. While the ship is sailing to the next destination the next day, tourists do not need to board the ship, they can participate in pre-tour or post-tour programs offered by travel companies. For example, after stopping in Saigon for tourists to visit, the ship leaves Saigon and spends a night at sea sailing to Da Nang the next day. Meanwhile, tourists can fly to Da Nang first, spend one night here to rest, then go on tours of Hoi An, Hue until the ship arrives. Tourists participating in such tours often spend a lot on luxury events, restaurants – hotels and use a lot of services. These pre-tours not only connect domestic destinations but also connect to neighboring countries. Spending for a night stay and plane tickets from cruise tourists can be up to 1000 USD per person, the important thing is how to meet the qualified standard to serve them.
Tourists visiting Vietnam and joining those tours are from small ships with only about 200 passengers. But in the world, there are larger ships with a capacity of up to 4000 passengers, several times higher than passengers of a flight. In order to transport and serve tours for 4000 guests, it needs dozens of flights and dozens of hotels. Unfortunately, Vietnam does not have enough facilities, aircraft and hotels to meet and receive this gift.
Besides, the situation of the cruise industry in Vietnam during the pandemic also has some regrets. There were ships that still entered Saigon in the morning as usual. But when they arrived at a port in Central area the next day, tourists were not allowed to get off the ship. They had to wait all day and eventually had to leave. The inadequacy is that if the destination doesn’t allow tourists to off, just notify them so that they can leave early, avoiding making tourists seasick due to docking at a spot and waiting makes it difficult for each other. But in some destinations, one agency agrees but another does not, tourists have to wait for them to negotiate but coming up no results. Even in some places, tourists have been granted visas and paid port fees but cannot get off the ship. This will greatly affect the image of the destination because the entire journey of the ship is recorded and preserved, those will be the typical factors that cruise lines will consider when choosing a destination in the future.
Currently, cruise travel in the world has begun to return. Destinations in our country all want to open ports to welcome ships in, but the government has not mentioned this issue, the reopening plan is still targeting air travel. We received a lot of bookings from international cruise lines for the coming years, especially 2023, 2024, with dozens of bookings for hotel rooms. But the situation is very difficult right now because flights have not resumed and hotels have not reopened yet. Tourism businesses that welcome cruise tourists really don’t know what to do. We had to cancel the schedule from January to March next year because many countries, including Vietnam, have not had the policy to welcome cruise ships back.
Meanwhile, all cruise lines have scheduled and opened tours for sale 3 years in advance, the schedule for 2024 is now available. We couldn’t tell them the reopening time just a few months in advance to put our destinations on their schedule. So the more hesitant a country is to reopen, the slower it will recover and it is a pity for those destinations and countries.
The full vaccination has gradually helped the ships to start sailing again, such as in Europe, cruises sail within the Schengen area, in the Americas, they sail through the Caribbean. But in the new context, there are also many new regulations.
Tourists are required to be fully vaccinated with an approved vaccine. In addition, they also need to undergo rapid tests before boarding. Sailors must also be fully vaccinated and tested regularly.
The ship’s structure also changed a lot. For example, in the past, each ship would have one central air conditioning system for all rooms and spaces on board. Now, in each department, each room has a separate air conditioner to avoid the risk of infection. The restaurant now also opens its doors for ventilation and seats are arranged by family. The concept of the buffet has also changed, tourists will no longer pick up food by themselves, they point and the staff of each counter will take food for them. This helps avoid many people being exposed to the same item.
Activities onboard also are minimized of interaction. For example, instead of having to wait in line to meet the receptionist like before, cruise tourists are now provided with a code to check-in, check-out by their phones from home or at a room on the ship. Tourists can order food to their room using the device provided and there is staff to assist when needed.
Previously, cruise tourists had to cancel bookings 6 months in advance to avoid penalties. Now, the policies are eased, allowing tourists to cancel bookings 6 days before boarding, even some cruises allow cancellation a day in advance. It is an improvement because the easier the policy, the more opportunities tourists have to access cruise travel.
Thanks to new technologies and pressure from the pandemic, ships have to improve a lot of facilities, minimize the possibility of infection but still be convenient for tourists. These innovations show the growing potential of the cruise industry. One evidence is that the itineraries that have just opened are sold out. However, cruise lines also have some difficulties after the pandemic, such as the disposal of many ships which are old compared to the new standards after Covid-19. The cost for repairing is very high, so it would be cheaper to build a new one. As a result, many companies have had to dispose nearly of half of their fleets.
Vietnam’s cruise industry needs to catch up with the world, needs to go fast and go ahead to seize opportunities. The most important is our government policy to reopen cruises, which serves as a basis for destinations and tourism businesses to prepare and connect with cruise lines to resume operations. To be honest, cruise travel is extremely safe today because, on the ship, tourists stay in their own rooms, even the aisles are divided, not just a shared path. The safety of cruises is sure to help the industry grow rapidly. As long as the cruise lines agree to dock, the schedule will be set even before the aviation. Therefore, opening to cruises is the most powerful opening for tourism.
Our process of welcoming cruise tourists is not very strict, so I think that if Vietnam is to reopen now, just keep the same pre-Covid-19 process and add safety measures, and avoid adding more complicated procedures that make it difficult for tourists. Besides, there are still some minor problems. For example, foreign tourists now perceive that Covid-19 is just a common cold, they have also been fully vaccinated and tested, they just go with their families, so many tourists do not want to wear masks. That is difficult for both tourists and the DMOs. Regulators need to understand these issues in order to take appropriate action. Another problem is the lack of consistency in regulatory between destinations in the country. For example, some destinations accept rapid test results and some require PCR testings. Those general regulations need to be consistent from central to local to make it easy for businesses to comply and update tourists.
It can be said that opening to cruises is a great opportunity but also challenging. Accepting opportunities is also accepting risks. It is important to be qualified and competent to seize opportunities and minimize risks to catch up with the world.
Thank you so much for today’s interview!