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Thursday, September 23, 2021

A halt not an end

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Enterprises in the tourism industry and their work forces are now facing yet another formidable challenge: Covid-19 has returned again after the three previous attacks. With many battle bruises visible, the people involved are exhausted and even want to give up at times. However, plenty of them are still dead set on fighting.

For almost one year, what Nguyen Tan, a professional tour guide in HCMC, has done to satisfy his traveling urge is watching travel films and travel movies. Covid-19 has almost paralyzed this part of the smokeless industry. But recently, Mr. Tan set out again, being the guide for a tour of pagodas in HCMC and neighboring provinces.

Now 29, Nguyen Tan became a tour guide in 2013 when he was still a university student. Yet this time it took him two weeks to prepare things for the tour. Even the preparations that careful did not keep him calm. The tour guide, who won a second prize at HCMC’s contest for excellent tour guides, lied awake the night before his departure.

“I’m used to guiding foreigners on inbound tours and Vietnamese on outbound tours,” said Mr. Tan. “I felt a little nervous this time although this is a tour of domestic destinations. I was really excited because I could work as a tour guide again.”

Those who keep the fire burning

The latest outbound tour of Mr. Tan was in February last year when he accompanied a group of tourists returning to Bulgaria. In May 2020, he was asked to resume work by his company. He refused, though, because many of his colleagues were more desperately in need of jobs than he was.

Mr. Tan did come back in January this year. However, after only a few tours, the joy did not last long as he had to stay home soon as the pandemic recurred.

Nguyen Tan is among the contingent of 60% of employees across the board in the tourism industry who have lost their jobs or become underemployed during the pandemic time. This figure was revealed in mid-March by Nguyen Trung Khanh, chairman of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism.

Employees losing their jobs means employers are on edge. For more than one year, travel firms have suffered enormously. “Our feelings are indescribable,” said some executives of tourist companies. “You know, we had to let our staff members leave our company, one by one. We can’t believe that!”

Nguyen Viet Hung, chairman of Fiditour, a travel service in HCMC, recalled the time when he had to lay off the first employees. It was in last April. “I was so sad to let them go, but at the same time, I was terribly worried,” he said. “I didn’t know how long the pandemic would last. I just hoped it would soon be over so that we could take my guys back.”

“My guys” is the way the boss of this travel firm with more than 30 years in the trade often refers to his staff members. Mr. Hung said although his company has risen to the challenge of many past crises caused by other pandemics, such as SARS, MERS, the bird flu and the global economic crisis, Covid-19 is totally different. He simply couldn’t imagine the devastating ravages of this pandemic.

“In April last year, I had nothing to pay my guys” said Mr. Hung. “And since then, this same scenario has repeated time and again. When the number of tourists begins to increase, the pandemic returns, cancelling all new tours. In this May, we had almost no guest.”

“But my guys love their job’s,” he added. After the first outbreak, many of Mr. Hung’s “guys” returned despite the very low salary. So far, half of them have had to find another job to support their family. However, whenever they have a chance to grasp a tour, they will contact the company, he said.

Mr. Hung added that he has changed, too. “We work as hard as we can instead of worrying too much about the pandemic,” he said. “If an outbreak occurs again, we will stop tours to spend time creating new products to promote them when the attack subsides. This may be the only way we could do.”

Agreeing with Mr. Hung, Nguyen Dang Kien, director of DiDi Travel, said so far this year, his company, which has been operational for five years now, has nearly run out of capital, which forced him to restructure his business.

The size of Mr. Kien’s work force has been reduced to only a fifth. Yet the workload remains the same, which requires everybody who remains to work as hard and as efficiently as they could. In line with a stopgap measure, the employees are allowed to moonlight to earn extra income. Mr. Kien himself has also done a second job, acting as a design consultant and a restaurateur to have money to keep his travel firm alive.

Coming back with a difference

When answering the question as to whether they would continue their travel services, some bosses said it would be a difficult option because they have been in tatters in the pandemic and quite unsure about the future. Tourism is the first industry to be affected by wars, natural disasters as well as pandemics, they argued.

However, the above thought seems to be shared by only a few people who are in the hardest time. In fact, many still have their passion for the trade.

Nguyen Tan, the tour guide, sets an example. He is now an English teacher earning a stable income. But a phone call from his firm quickly urges him to arrange his teaching schedule so that he has time to become a tour guide again even though what he earns is small.

The same is true with Nguyen Viet Hung. Although he is nearing the retiring age, he still wants to work with his colleagues. Nguyen Dang Kien is no difference. He tries to work as hard as he can and patiently wait for the return of the tourism industry.

However, the return will be different. The pandemic has basically changed the entire industry to the point that it is no longer what it once was.

According to Mr. Hung, his company has resorted to digitalization and IT applications to meet market demand. Currently, all meetings are completely online, including those with guests.

Promotion activities are run on online channels or social networks. Moreover, as social media have become widespread, Fiditour has planned to operate individual accounts as online sales channels.

“Some have signed contracts worth hundreds of millions of dong or even billions of dong via social networks,” said Mr. Hung. “We have also invited IT experts over to offer training courses on online sales to our employees.” According to him, most of his staff want to change the way the company works. “Earlier this week, one of them requested us to hold more training courses to help them develop their selling skills to adapt better in the digital era.”

Meanwhile, Nguyen Dang Kien said tourism in the post-Covid-19 era are products designed for small groups of travelers and families who want to avoid crowded places. However, it requires travel firms to further change themselves to reach those customers.

Particularly, tour operators should create special tours for specific guests, such as tours for the elderly and kids. However, those kinds of tour are much more complicated, which may confuse tour operators.

“The tourism industry will shift to a new form,” said Mr. Kien. “Therefore, distinctive characteristics of each customer segment should be defined  clearly. That is the way we follow to develop our new products in the coming time.”

Again, Nguyen Tan, the tour guide, is following the Master’s degree in international relations as he wants to acquire more knowledge on the job. Aside from information on Vietnamese culture and history, what he needs is also politics and international affairs to better serve foreign tourists. Moreover, his longer-term plan is to become a lecturer sharing knowledge and experiences with the next generations.

The future of tourism has not come to an end yet!

By Dao Loan

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