ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
Vietnam's tourism sector is facing both great opportunities and challenges when a major Asean workforce agreement comes into effect in 2015, industry experts have predicted.
Tran Phu Cuong, deputy director of the International Cooperation Department under the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, declared that the country is urgently preparing for the agreement, which would facilitate the free movement and employment of qualified and certified tourism personnel between the bloc's member states.
Ahead of the planned launch of the Asean economic community in 2015, tourism is the sector leading the way to make the most of new opportunities, Cuong said, adding that although Asean nations had signed similar agreements in other fields such as construction and trade, Vietnam has prioritised tourism because it would take less time and effort to build capacity in this sector than others.
In order for a foreign tourism professional to be recognised by other Asean Member States and made eligible to work in a host country, they will need to possess a valid tourism competency certificate and a specific tourism job title, as specified in the Common Asean Tourism Curriculum.
There are 32 job titles covered under this document, ranging from housekeeper, receptionist and food and beverage provider to travel agent and tour operator.
The Vietnam National Administration of Tourism has worked with the EU-funded Environmentally and Socially Responsible Tourism Capacity Development Programme (ESRT) to develop the Vietnam Tourism Occupational Standards (VTOS).
Tourism and hospitality professionals in Vietnam with a VTOS Certificate will be able to have this accredited by the Asean Common Competency Standards for Tourism Professionals.
Cuong said the new possibilities offered a great opportunity for Vietnamese tourism professionals to find good jobs in other regional countries as the country's workforce is large in number, young, ready to learn and affordable. He also pointed out that many Asean countries had a high demand for foreign workers.
He cited the example of Singapore, which has been dependent on outsourcing workers from other countries for several years. For example, many of the country's ship owners have employed Vietnamese seafarers to work on passenger ferries.
Nguyen Thi Khanh Ly, a tour guide working for the ATT Travel Company in Ha Noi said when the agreement was adopted it would solve the problem of Vietnamese tour guides working illegally in other Asean countries.
She said many Vietnamese workers were not permitted to legally work overseas, even though they possessed the required skills.
According to Ly, Singaporean tourism companies have hired Vietnamese to work as tour guides for groups of Vietnamese tourists without notifying the authorities to broaden the service offered to visitors. Similar situations have been reported in Asean countries, including Thailand and Malaysia.
Cao Thi Thu Hien, Front Office Manager of the Melia Hanoi Hotel said the agreement would benefit Vietnamese workers more than foreign ones, as the demand for overseas workers among Vietnamese tourism companies was low due to financial restraints. However, she conceded that the agreement would make the recruitment of foreign workers easier by providing companies a tourism competency certificate to base their decision on. As such, the quality of recruitment would be improved.
While the agreement offers great opportunities, it will also force Vietnam to work harder on improving the quality of its human resources in tourism, said Cuong, quipping that "once we join the playground, we need to play by the rules."
Cuong added that the quality of Vietnamese tourism professionals was currently of average level within the region.
Ngo Trung Ha, deputy head of the Ha Noi Tourism College's Training Department warned that Vietnamese workers in the sector would face much greater competition once the new measures came into force.
"They might find their jobs at risk if they fail to upgrade their own professional skills," Ha said, pointing out that increasing the workforce's competitiveness was now an urgent priority.
Paul Penfold, vocational and education standards expert of the EU-funded Environmentally and Socially Responsible Tourism Capacity Development Programme said Vietnamese tourism had a lot of catching up to do, especially regarding service quality and technical skills.
"There is a mismatch between industry needs and the human resources available," Penfold said.
He explained that training providers such as colleges and universities produce poorly qualified graduates for the industry because the curriculum is out of date and the teachers are out of touch with industry needs.
Hien said Vietnamese workers in tourism particularly needed to improve their own "sense of service."
While workers in the south, particularly HCM City, had developed their service skills to some extent, workers in the north, including Ha Noi, still lacked them, she stated, citing the fact that in the capital customers often had to ask to be served.
Cuong remarked that from now on, Vietnam needed to do much more to spread media coverage about the agreement, as worryingly it was not known by many, including industry insiders. Ly was one of many people to admit that she was totally unaware of the agreement, despite its potential impact on her own work.
According to Ken Atkinson, General Director of Grant Thornton Vietnam and chairman of Vietnam Business Tourism Working Group, the country's tourism industry is not growing as strongly as in neighbouring countries, suggesting a need for more government intervention.
During the first seven months of the year, despite achieving a 5.9 increase in visitor arrivals, the country's growth was still insignificant compared to that recorded in many Asian Pacific rivals.
Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand all showed strong increases, equal to 30, 18 and 20 per cent respectively during the same period. Urgent action need to be taken to prevent bad practices which damages the industry, Atkinson pointed out.
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