“I just applied for a new job at an education consulting agency. COVID-19 has shown me how risky it is to work in the tourism industry at this special time of humanity. I think it’s better that I take another career path right now, ”Dinh Que Chi, my cousin, recently told me. We were talking in Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site about 30 kilometers from Da Nang – the epicenter of Vietnam’s latest COVID-19 outbreak.
That Chi grew up in Hoi An and worked in the city for about two years, at Vinpearl Nam Hoi An Resort and then at Nam Hai Resort, before finding herself fired due to COVID-19. She is just one of many local workers in a similar situation. Just when the people of Hoi An dreamed of a spectacular ‘turn of the table’ for their tourism industry after a 99-day streak with no local transmission in Vietnam and herds of domestic tourists flocking to this place for the holidays of summer, a new epidemic appeared. Da Nang has registered dozens of new cases of COVID-19 since July 25, shattering short-lived hopes of a resumption of tourism in Hoi An.
Hoi An, with its 400-year history as a mosaic of Sino-Hokkian, Japanese and Vietnamese culture as evidenced by its unique architecture and cuisine, has always been a must visit for travelers to Vietnam. In 2019, the total number of visitors staying here was estimated at 5.35 million. According to the Municipal Culture and Information Bureau, 90% of overnight visitors to Hoi An are foreigners. In the first nine months of 2019, tourism directly brought 4.4 trillion Vietnamese dong ($ 191 million) to the ancient city, and social revenues from the tourism sector were recorded at 10.340 billion dong.
Nonetheless, the heavyweight of COVID-19 has turned the world upside down for all local citizens. With the pandemic spreading around the world, as of March 22, the Vietnamese government declared a temporary suspension of entry for all foreign nationals. This travel ban has caused untold losses to local businesses. The average rent in the Old Town is normally around 100 million dong ($ 4,235). With such an extravagant price tag and no tourists, many local fabric stores, restaurants and accommodation establishments whose targeted customers are foreign travelers have been forced to downsize – or even go bankrupt – after the travel ban. . Locals like my cousin Que Chi found themselves without a job overnight, struggling to make ends meet. The once crowded old streets are deserted.
I spoke with Huynh Thi Nhu Nhu, a young entrepreneur who had to give up her rental villa business after only 3 months of operation due to COVID-19. “Before, we earn up to 100 million dong per month; however, after the ban on foreign entry was enacted, we could barely pay the rent. The owner of the villa refused to negotiate, so we had to close our business, ”Nhu said with disappointment. Travel agencies and accommodations with a particular focus on Korean or Chinese tourists, who together accounted for 56% of Vietnam’s international arrivals in 2019, have been hit hardest by the pandemic, she said.
It is not just Hoi An, the Vietnamese tourism industry in general is suffering badly. International arrivals to the country in March 2020 were only around 450,000, a decrease of 63.8% from the previous month. Compared to the same period last year, the number of international tourists to Vietnam decreased by 68.1%.
By early June, the pandemic situation in Vietnam was well under control thanks to an efficient and inexpensive containment model, which has already made a name for itself around the world. Recognizing the opportunity to save its tourism sector, the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism issued Plan No. 1749 to launch the “Vietnamese traveling to Vietnam ”from June 1, with a view to galvanizing domestic tourism demand. Hoi An has become a little vibrant again. Hotels, tourist sites and travel agencies have launched a slew of discounted packages in hopes of attracting domestic visitors to the city. Over the weekend, around 3,000 Vietnamese tourists are said to have visited the city.
Sadly, the new outbreak since July 25 has resulted in massive cancellations of reservations in Hoi An, reminding not only the locals but also the Vietnamese government that COVID-19 is here to stay. Hoi An has become a ghost town again.
I visited Tan Ky Ancient House on the morning news of COVID-19 infections in Da Nang was confirmed. I was not surprised to hear the tour guide (who wished to remain anonymous): “You are the very first guest today, and I strongly suspect that you would be the only one. I have been informed that around 2,000 people have just canceled their reservations at Hoi An Silk Village for fear of the new wave of infection. According to the guide, Tan Ky Ancient House was hosting up to 1,000 guests a day before the pandemic.
“The prediction is that it will not be until 2023 that Hoi An tourism will be able to recover. I am extremely pessimistic about my near future and I think my concerns are shared by all residents, ”she added.
Without any deaths from COVID-19, Vietnam has undoubtedly gained a good reputation in dealing with the pandemic. Its success throughout the first wave of infections convinced experts to take a positive outlook for the country’s economy. The country’s GDP growth in 2020 – which is expected to be around 4.8 percent according to the Asian Development Bank’s forecast – will most likely be the best in Southeast Asia. is expected to show positive economic growth in 2020.
However, tourism and exports continue to suffer. In addition, according to Pham Do Chi, a former Vietnamese expert at the International Monetary Fund, Vietnam cannot avoid the social and economic ramifications of the pandemic. According to preliminary calculations and reports from localities, as of June 2020, there were 30.8 million people aged 15 and over across the country who had been hit hard by the pandemic, including those who lost their jobs, had to reduce their working hours or had their income decreased. At the sixth conference of the board of directors of the General Confederation of Labor of Vietnam, which was held on the morning of July 3 in Hanoi, it was revealed that the average increase in workers’ wages had fallen dramatically. significant, only 8.3 percent compared to 19.4 percent this time last time. year.
Now a second wave of infections has arrived. Building on the experience it has gained so far, the Vietnamese government responds quickly with strict measures. However, the big question to be addressed now is not only how to contain the virus, but also how to cope with the dire economic losses that await in the aftermath of the pandemic. Putting the country back on social distancing would mean increased bankruptcies, debt and unemployment. As a recently released report by the World Bank noted: “While the economy overall has been resilient, many businesses and individuals have been exposed to the harsh realities of the pandemic. “
What is happening in Hoi An is a perfect example of this reality. “Those who are forecasting positive have certainly not come to Hoi An. People here are struggling, and I don’t know when it will end. Even when we have the vaccine, people have to work and earn money before they can travel again, ”complained a man I met at the Mun Cafe near the old streets.
Given Hoi An’s proximity to the Da Nang epicenter and the fact that thousands of people were coming to the city just before the outbreak, the ancient city will be under a social distancing warrant from midnight on July 31. The future of a recovery, for many residents, is dim.
Pham Thi Thuy Duong is Yenching Fellow at Yenching Academy at Peking University and Baixian Fellow at Baixian Asia Institute.