Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Vietnam, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has repeatedly laid emphasis on the dual task of fighting the pandemic and ensuring socio-economic growth. This has posed a complex question for the related authorities: When to reopen international air routes?
The reopening of the door to the world will be an important driver for the resumption of economic life, especially for international tourism. However, the move will bring about risks for the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in Vietnam.
The pandemic is developing very complicatedly in the world with rising infections while the vaccine against Covid-19 has not yet been commercialized. Many countries have reopened their doors to the outside world and have immediately witnessed the Covid-19 outbreaks, such as Australia, Greece and India(1). Despite the experiences in fighting and controlling the pandemic of some developing countries with frequently overburdened healthcare systems like Vietnam, subjectivity will become a weakness destroying all their achievements. Still, the economic benefits of reopening international air routes, especially for tourism, are undeniable.
The international commercial flight on September 25 ended six months when Vietnam “closed” herself to the world for the pandemic fight. During this period, aviation and tourism suffered heavy losses, dragging down a chain of related production and services. In 2019, tourism contributed 9.2% to the gross domestic product (GDP), and the total revenue from tourism reached VND755 trillion (US$32.8 billion), with international tourism making up VND421 trillion, or 55.7%. Nearly 80% of international visitors came to Vietnam by air, much higher than the world’s average of 58%, according to the United Nations World Travel Organization. Figures from the World Travel and Tourism Council show that Vietnam has more than 4.9 million workers in the tourism industry, not to mention the number of workers in tourism-related areas(2).
The six-month period of stopping international air services has sent the number of international visitors to Vietnam down by 98-99%(3), and is estimated to cause damage of over VND210 trillion (nearly US$10 billion) for the tourism sector. The revenue from the travel segment in the first eight months of the year was some VND13.1 trillion, down 54.4% from the year-earlier period which recorded a rise of 10%(4). According to a survey of the Covid-19 impact, nearly 66% of tourism and travel enterprises have had to reduce more than a half of their staff, of which nearly 20% have had to lay off all their staff(5).
Though the tourism industry still survives thanks to the domestic tourism market, the fact that Vietnam is an attractive destination to international tourists, especially those from developed countries with higher living standards, such as South Korea, Japan, the United States, Russia and China, is putting Vietnamese tourism enterprises in the position of “playing football with one foot,” but not the right foot. Therefore, for enterprises, especially those in tourism and tourism related areas, the reopening of international air routes, which is the pre-requisite for reopening the international tourism market, is likened to the ventilator for Covid-19 treatment. Tourism enterprises badly need moneyed tourists to fill vacant rooms of hotels, use relaxation services and spend for foods and drinks, shopping and other items so that they can increase revenue, first to offset losses and then to stabilize operations. This may be the bright prospect tourism enterprises are visualizing when international air routes are reopened.
In addition, for nearly five million workers in the tourism industry and tourism related areas, the reopening of the door to international tourism is a lifebuoy amid the Covid-19 storm. Job reduction, loss and transfer, and even unemployment are now popular among those workers. Some have to do manual work or other jobs alongside their main job to maintain their normal life. The return of international tourists, which is also synonymous to the return of jobs, would help somewhat relieve their burden for earning a living.
Nevertheless, the reopening of the international tourism market is not without its disadvantages. The greatest concern is the possibility of the Covid-19 resurgence, which requires social distancing and chokes off the freshly resumed normal pace of socio-economic life. Should the incident happen, the tourism and hospitality industries will not be able to serve even the domestic market, which is currently their lifebuoy.
Another disadvantage is the environmental issues and the loss of immediate benefits for domestic tourists. Perhaps domestic tourists have never been able to travel in the country with “competitive” prices like now when travel companies, airlines, accommodation and catering services have continuously launched promotions. A number of four and five-star hotels have reduced prices on par with those of three-star hotels in normal time. Also, the pressure on the transport system and the environment has never been reduced like now, with less traffic congestion and accidents, garbage and pollution. When the “hiatus” is not long enough for the systems to restructure comprehensively for recovery and sustainable development post-Covid-19, the reopening of international tourism also means the quick return of the situation pre-Covid-19.
In view of the benefits and the costs of all stakeholders, policymakers should be very cautious and have a clear roadmap for gradual reopening, and should not be hasty and subjective in reopening international air routes. For the time being, the establishment of “safe corridors” should be continued based on the selection of countries and regions which have really contained and controlled the pandemic and have database for tracing suspected cases, and priority should be given to important partners which have many tourists to Vietnam.
Another urgent issue is the coordination of ministries, sections and sectors, both among them and with partners, in setting standard immigration processes, addressing requests for providing negative coronavirus tests of passengers before boarding and entry, and monitoring, supervising and tracing immigrants with modern technology, ensuring facility and convenience for tourists. Before the reopening, it’s utterly necessary to devise “safe” destinations, itineraries and tours with health supervision and the participation of enterprises and people to create a new tourist ecosystem adaptable to the pandemic period.
Finally, the safety for locals and tourists must be the top priority. Authorities should have plans and be prepared for emergencies, devise scenarios for timely response, and discover and prevent the pandemic from the start, isolate infected areas and minimize damage in the fastest way.
By Le Thach Anh
(4) General Statistics Office (2020). Socio-economic situation in the first eight months of 2020 at https://www.gso.gov.vn/default.aspx?tabid=621&ItemID=19721