STOP PRESS: There is indeed truth to the rumour – the local government is now charging foreign tourists VND 120,000 (around USD 6) to enter the Old Town. Apparently Vietnamese visitors also have to pay a fee of VND 80,000, but this author is yet to see the new rule implemented in any consistent manner.
One of the things that the decision has generated is a fun new game called Avoid the Attendant. Sipping on a sugarcane juice while sitting across the street from one of the ancient city’s border posts, it is quite entertaining to watch tourists –foreign and Vietnamese alike – trying to dodge, weave and zigzag their way around the gate keepers.
In an interesting incident a few nights ago, Avoid the Attendant was taken to a whole new level. One foreigner tried to re-enter the Old Town after slipping across the river for a quick beer. He had previously paid the fee, but did not have his ticket. A verbal argument ensued, then the border guard pushed him, so the tourist in turn picked up the border guard and threw him into the river, loudly declaring that he shall never again set foot on the hallowed ground of Hoi An’s ancient town! (Well, something like that. I wasn't actually there so please permit me some artistic prose.)
On a more official and rational note, the Hoi An people’s committee has issued a statement along these lines: Tickets are valid for 10 days and cost VND 120,000 for foreign tourists and VND 80,000 for domestic visitors. Eighty-five percent of the revenue will be invested in the Old Town, with revenue supporting renovations, maintenance, staff and the families of the ancient houses that are open to tourists. The fee covers entrance to six historic landmarks, entrance to the Old Town, and traditional entertainment (folk dancing, singing, games).
While there has been much rumbling, discontent, and an understandable initial backlash over the new entry fee, it is difficult to predict whether it will have a long-term negative impact on tourist numbers or businesses operating inside the ancient city limits. Sure, there have been reports of rude and aggressive border guards, but we all have those. And proprietors are concerned tourists won’t wander the streets as much as they used to. But in reality, most tourists are new to Hoi An, and they may not mind paying a fee to help maintain this exceptionally well preserved example of a traditional Asian trading port.
What the Hoi An Peoples’ Committee perhaps could have considered is a more subtle and less confrontational technique for raising revenue to maintain this World Heritage site. In many other historic sites around the world, a modest tax is imposed on accommodation. Each person staying in any form of hotel, resort or guesthouse pays a one-off surcharge (regardless of their length of stay) as part of their hotel bill, and this revenue is later collected by the government. This could be a sliding tax linked to the budget and star rating of the accommodation provider.
The beauty of this approach is that the guest probably does not mind paying an official government tax listed on their bill, and in addition the local government would not have to engage staff, ticket offices and other operational costs. Unfortunately this system would lead the premature death of Avoid the Attendant.
Word on the street is that a Peoples’ Committee meeting has been organized to address the many and varied issues associated with the launch of the new policy, and to work out a solution to the complaints lodged by business owners, other locals and the /media.
Those who have a business or work to do in the Old Town don’t have to pay the entry fee. There might emerge a roaring trade in second-hand tickets, too…