Tourists from China abandon Vietnam after oil rig conflict

By Cat Barton, AFP

HANOI–For years Nguyen Huu Son has guided Chinese tourists around Vietnam’s popular coastal city Danang, but a bitter maritime dispute between Hanoi and Beijing means he is now out of work. Relations between the communist neighbors plunged to their lowest point in decades when Beijing moved a deep-sea oil rig into disputed waters in the South China Sea in early May, triggering deadly riots in Vietnam. The rig has since been withdrawn. But the Chinese tourists have not returned. “It’s never been this bad before … My company has almost no customers, no work,” Son told AFP. Son’s salary has been cut by two-thirds, but he feels “embarrassed” to take even this reduced pay package as he knows his company is not making any money at all.

“We focus on individual travelers, not tour groups, and 100 percent of them cancelled … I have nothing to do with my time,” he said, adding that he was mulling a change of career. After the mid-May riots, in which China says four of its nationals were killed, Beijing evacuated thousands of citizens and issued a “yellow” travel warning for Vietnam. While this was reasonable in the immediate aftermath of the riots — which mostly affected Taiwanese and South Korean businesses — maintaining the travel warning when any danger to tourists has passed smacks of politics, said Professor Jonathan London at City University of Hong Kong.

“It reminds one of Beijing’s campaigns to reduce mainland tourism to the Philippines,” London said, referring the economic fallout from the 2012 standoff over the Scarborough Shoal. After a dispute over the uninhabited shoal, Beijing warned its citizens about travel safety in the Philippines, prompting mass cancellations. Economic Impact Chinese tourist arrivals to Vietnam were down 29.5 percent in June from the previous month, according to official figures. In June, 136,726 Chinese visited Vietnam, down from 194,018 in May and 216,659 in April this year, the figures show. Vietnam will continue tourism promotion efforts in China, aiming to show “Vietnam is a safe destination,” said Nguyen Manh Cuong, an official at the tourism department. Tourism is an important source of revenue for communist Vietnam, contributing nearly six percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2013, official statistics show.

Chinese visitors make up the largest single group of arrivals — more than 1.1 million in 2014 overall, despite the sharp fall off after May.

The next largest group, South Korea, saw 405,634 arrivals.

The average Chinese visitor stays five days and spends US$300 if they travel by land, or US$700 if they have arrived by airplane, Cuong said. This compares to an average stay of about 10 days by European or American tourists, who spend up to US$3,000 during that period, official figures show.