The labyrinthine waterways of the Mekong Delta should be a boon to local tourism



 Industry players believe it is now compulsory to come up with new forms which focus on the ecological characteristics of the delta, so as to bring its natural advantages into full play.

For years, a same comment has been made time and again during discussions on tourism development in the Mekong Delta—that is a lack of diversity in the tourism products this region has to offer. Make a tour of several localities in the delta, it claims, and visitors will feel enough without having to explore the rest.

According to tour operators, the provinces in the Mekong Delta have similar natural conditions and terrains and all of them are not really experienced in entertaining visitors.

Even their tour programs are almost the same, all including a boat trip through canals, a visit to fruit gardens, a show of đờn ca tài tử (a genre of chamber music in the traditional music of southern Vietnam) and fish catching in ditches. The dishes tourists are served in these tours and the way they are seasoned, are the same, tour operators bemoan.

Having listened to these repeated complaints, even local tourist firms in the delta have felt uneasy. Recently, during a press conference held in HCMC to introduce the first ever forum on tourism connection between the city and the 13 localities of the Mekong Delta, some travel officials from these localities expressed their displeasure at the aforesaid comment, saying it is incomprehensive. Indeed, they argued, their tourism products are now more diverse.

For instance, they said, sea tourism in Kien Giang, wind farms and ecological shrimp in Bac Lieu, and spiritual tourism in An Giang, to name just a few. The “protesters” insisted that it would be detrimental to the delta’s tourism industry if people keep saying that their tourism products are similar.

And the fact that such negative view has been repeatedly aired on the mass media makes it more harmful, because the vilification might discourage tourists from paying a visit to Vietnam’s southern delta.

Nor is it good for localities where visitors come from, such as HCMC, as not only the Mekong Delta is in need of HCMC which brings visitors over but the city also needs the delta as a destination for visitors.

At present, travel companies, especially those in HCMC and specializing in international tourists, are greatly dependent on the Mekong Delta as the destinations for their tour programs.

Some tour operators that have gained a foothold on the U.S. and European markets say about 80% of the visitors to HCMC would travel to the Mekong Delta, with My Tho, Cai Be and Can Tho as the most popular destinations.

Those who have more time would travel on waterways from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to Cambodia to see with their own eyes the difference in the life along the way.

In particular, although Phu Quoc Island is a favorite destination, the number of tourists traveling from HCMC to this island is modest. It is partly because the beaches there are similar to those in Nha Trang and Mui Ne in southern central Vietnam. Visitors do not really want to spend extra money on air tickets and extra time touring this island.

The delta's tropical fruit-laden gardens have great potential, but they are remained largely untapped
Recently, more tourism products and services have been introduced in efforts to make some Mekong Delta localities livelier.

Dong Thap has lured millions of tourists over with its Sa Dec flower village and mandarin orange garden. Can Tho retains visitors with community tourism in destinations like Con Son. Last but not least, Phu Quoc now has many charming resorts and entertainment areas.

However, according to experts, the differences fail to produce a turning point for the Mekong Delta’s tourism because they are still lacking highlights and fall short of really meeting the needs of tourists who want to explore more or have more fun.

A case in point is many localities believe the flood season with the impressive scenery it brings and the catch it offers has become a tourism specialty of the region. However, the new hope is luring only to some domestic visitors, whereas international tourists most of whom come to Vietnam just once can hardly tell the difference.

Some destinations like Ben Tre have attracted droves of visitors thanks to the water games that are often hosted at tourist sites. However, this is what has already been done in some other provinces like Dong Nai for a few years now. That’s why they say the new and the distinctive have not yet been found.

Regarding tourist accommodation, the lack of high-quality facilities makes it impossible for many tour operators to take their customers farther. Meanwhile, the homestay model, despite its growth, is not a wide choice. As the majority of homestay facilities are not well-invested, they can only cater to backpackers.

Natural advantages should be brought into play

What should be done to make tourism in the Mekong Delta more attractive? Travel companies believe it is first necessary to develop a transport system that enables smooth and convenient travel between the tourist destinations in the region.

Next, it is advisable to draw on tourism resources, especially water resources, to make tourism in the delta distinguishable from those of other regions.

River tours within the region or connecting to Cambodia by luxury tourist ships may be a solution for the Mekong Delta localities. There are international visitors who are willing to pay big for a few days traveling along the Mekong.

Unfortunately, not so many tourist destinations have invested in infrastructure and services along the banks and high-end watercraft for this tourist route is nowhere to be found.

Late last month, at the launch of the first four-star cruise to run on this international route, Chairman Tran Trong Kien of Thien Minh Group said the demand from international visitors is high, and the travel industry is able to address a small portion.

Therefore, in addition to the fleet of ships that run within the region, Thien Minh and their foreign partners would build nine yachts in the next five years to carry tourists back and forth between the Mekong Delta and Cambodia. 

Tourism relying on the advantages of the region, in pursuit of a friendly and nature-based business model, is another solution for tour operators in the Mekong Delta.

Some investors have succeeded in cutting the payback period by a third with decisions to stay away from concrete and adopt an eco-friendly construction style for their resorts.

By doing so, they have saved more space for their guests to come in contact with nature, enjoy the dishes whose ingredients are grown on the spot and go on tours that connect them with the local community.

A businessman specializing in operating cruise tours in HCMC has spent billions of dong providing the people in Cai Be Floating Market with dozens of boats they use to resume trading activities on the river. In addition, this entrepreneur has also given those people guidance on how to do tourism through the activities of the floating market.

“Foreigners love floating markets,” said the above businessman. “In Thailand, canals dug to make artificial floating markets and they are able to attract huge volumes of tourists. Many natural floating markets are still bustling in the Mekong Delta, but they fail to lend a hand to tourism and are gradually on the wane due to inadequate investment.”

If trading activities are combined with tours around floating markets and to the nearby craft villages, according to him, it will give birth to attractive tour programs for the region.

“Investment based on the intrinsic advantages is capable of making a difference and creating vitality for tourism,” he said. “There is no need to go a great length only to bring back the outdated models.” SGT

Dao Loan

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