Survey about foreigners returning to Vietnam. Are they jumping to conclusion using bad data?

practicalities - Vietnam: Jan. 13, 2015

The headline seemed to say it all; “Only 6 percent of foreign visitors return to Vietnam”.

The impressively named Environmentally and Socially Responsible Tourism Capacity Development Program announced their survey results in early November which was quickly followed by numerous newspaper/website critiques about the reason why the figure was so low. Teeth gnashing and the blame game commenced immediately, with comparisons to Thailand and Singapore’s official return rate being used as a benchmark. In all the coverage though, no one mentioned just how flawed the survey was and how it would be impossible to compare it with official numbers in other countries.


Of course Vietnam does have problems with its tourism industry. I don’t mean to sound like Vietnam is a traveler’s paradise. The reasons reported such as lack of basic facilities and transportation continue to be major hindrances for the industry. But to cite a market research study that uses samples from the top tourist destinations of Sapa, Halong Bay, Hue, and Hoi An when looking for repeat visitors is like going to the Ho Chi Minh City McDonalds and Starbucks outlets and asking international patrons if they love Vietnam street food. The sample of tourists questioned was heavily biased towards first time visitors because the survey was taken where people go on their first trip to Vietnam. If the survey was conducted on the beaches of Mui Ne, District 1 in Saigon, and the border town of Mong Cai, then the survey would have been skewed very much in the opposite direction. The purchase considerations of a traveler returning to a country are often very different than the reasons a person visits a country for the first time. In Vietnam this would very much be reflected in where that traveler visits.


First time visitors (typically tourists) are looking to explore a new culture, geography, and scenery that they cannot find at home. Once seen, it is stored in both memory and photographs. Then it is on to the next adventure. The survey says visitors only stay in Sapa for two days. How long do they expect people to look at tiered fields and indigenous people? How many times do you need to see it? Adding an amusement park or other typical tourist facilities designed to keep visitors longer would only take away from the reason they go there to begin with. Sometimes it is alright to be a “once in a lifetime” destination. If you try to “fix” it you may break it instead.


On the other hand, tourism authorities must understand what makes people come back.

The most obvious reason is cross-border trading. Vietnam shares a border with Cambodia, Laos, and China. In fact, one out every five international arrivals to Vietnam is made by road. Some are tourists, but many are just doing business. The same applies to business travelers-who often return to a country multiple times. About 17% of all international arrivals to Vietnam are made for business purposes. Very few of them are traveling to Sapa, Hoi An, Hue, or Halong Bay. Comparing a survey taken in these spots to official numbers from other countries is ridicules.


But let’s forget about those types of travelers and just focus on tourists. What purchase considerations are fulfilled when a tourist visit a country multiple time. In general, there are two reasons:

    1. A need that cannot be fulfilled in the person’s home country.The obvious example of this is hot weather in the winter time. Casino gambling and other vices are also reasons people leave their country for a trip abroad. Activities and events can be included in this category as well.
    2. More purchasing power in the visiting country than at home. This includes upgrading or extending a vacation because it is less expensive in a foreign country. Cheaper shopping and golf excursions are also examples.

Of course when considering an international vacation, travelers will weigh the cost versus vacationing domestically. Transportation expenses and travel time are usually important when deciding.


So getting back to the survey; Sapa, Halong Bay, Hoi An, and Hue are great destinations for visitors to experience on their first trip to Vietnam. Seeing those locations are once in life-time trips and fulfill the person’s purchase consideration of adventure and new experiences. Going a second time no longer does that and it never will. People coming back for a second time are going to the beaches of south central Vietnam, playing golf in Danang, and shopping in Hanoi and Saigon. Making conclusions from a survey which does not understand the reasons why people come back to Vietnam is not productive.