Famous attractions are packed with visitors arriving on dodgy package tours.
Three hundred thousand Chinese tourists have entered Vietnam through the Mong Cai International Border Gate since the beginning of this year, according to official figures.
That figure includes an estimated 5,000 every day since the middle of March, with most of them heading to Quang Ninh, a northern province that’s home to some of Vietnam’s most famous attractions such as Ha Long Bay and Yen Tu Mountain.
“Chinese tourists arrive on package tours, so the long lines are the result of thousands of them waiting to get through customs. Last year, the number of Chinese tourists was even higher,” said an official from the border guard station.
This massive influx of Chinese visitors has overwhelmed Ha Long Bay in recent days, with slow-moving lines of passengers waiting to board boats to Ha Long’s renowned caves and islands.
“Winter and spring are the most popular seasons for Chinese tourists; summer is too hot for them. We have been serving mostly Chinese visitors since the beginning of the year. There are times when the attractions are filled completely with Chinese tourists,” said Luong, a tour boat worker.
In the last 15 days, 600 hundred boats have been permitted to go out onto the bay, of which 70 percent were filled with Chinese tourists, according to Quang Ninh Inland Waterway Port.
This phenomenon is a result of “zero dollar” tourism, according to an experienced travel official in Quang Ninh.
“‘Zero dollar’ tours are a form of marketing. Travel agencies pay for tourists’ accommodation and meals on the condition they follow the agencies’ schedules and shop only at the stores they are taken to. These stores are the foundation of ‘zero dollar’ tours,” said the official.
Most of the stores are owned by Vietnamese nationals but are actually operated by Chinese investors, and their operations are very hard for authorities to control, the official explained.
The stores are associated with travel agencies, and the sales revenue they make is split between them.
Jewelry, blankets, mattresses and other products are sold at these “Chinese customers only” stores for prices a few times higher than the market rate, said the official. These products are the main source of income for “zero dollar” tours.
15 of these stores were closed in March 2017 after the PM asked Quang Ninh Province to verify press reports of low service quality. The media calls them “secret stores” since they are always packed with Chinese tourists and Vietnamese locals are not allowed in.
Vietnam is not the only country where “zero dollar” tours are being operated in. Each year, Thailand loses $9 billion due to this kind of tourism, said Sansern Keawkamnerd, a spokesperson for the Thailand Government Office, in February last year.
Visitors on these tours are often pressured to buy goods, and can even be assaulted they object, SCMP reported in January.