Responsible travel company? Here’s how to select the right partner in Vietnam

Along with experiential, ethical, sustainable, luxury, and others, responsible has become an overused buzzword in the tourism industry. If your company operates in this area, you’ll know that opinions and ideas vary as to what makes a responsible tourism product.

This ambiguity is especially true in Vietnam, and the tourism industry is rife with terms that are used incorrectly.

“Community based tourism” is applied to products that take place in the community, but sometimes little thought has gone into how this community can sustain the activities, or benefit from them. Sometimes these activities can take far more from the community than they give back.

“Ecolodges” are everywhere, but few actually operate in an eco-friendly way. Even worse, some have failed to source sustainable wood to build their rustic and charming accommodations, doing great harm to the environment.

Overdevelopment and hyper-commercialization plague Vietnam’s most popular tourist destinations, giving rise to the term “overtourism.” It’s common for visitors that come to Vietnam wishing to travel responsibly leave feeling like they’ve done more harm than good.

But don’t be too concerned — there is still plenty of opportunity in Vietnam for responsible and meaningful tourism activities. Indeed, tourism is often touted as an instrument to sustain fragile cultures and communities and protect the environment.

The challenge for responsible tourism professionals like yourself is selecting the right local partner. In this article, we pinpoint what responsible tourism means in the Vietnam context, followed by five pieces of advice that will help you make the right decisions:

1. Look at the experience of the potential partner

2. Think about how the potential partner positions itself

3. Be wary of cheap contract rates

4. Understand how the potential partner selects suppliers

5. Ask about the training the potential partner carries out

What is responsible tourism?

In 2002, the Cape Town Declaration outlined that responsible tourism is tourism which:

· minimizes negative social, economic and environmental impacts

· generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities

· improves working conditions and access to the industry

· involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances

· makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage embracing diversity

· provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues

· provides access for physically challenged people

· is culturally sensitive, encourages respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence

The Cape Town Declaration is now widely accepted and in 2007 it was adopted by the World Travel Market for World Responsible Tourism Day. The Cape Town Declaration highlighted the steps the industry should take in order to become more responsible, but it was unable to quantify or measure any progress.

Sustaining Tourism define responsible tourism as “any form of tourism that can be consumed in a more responsible way.” The key to responsible tourism is not in providing zero-waste products or avoiding all impact on local communities.

The idea is to move toward behaving as responsibly as possible.

Industry professionals in Vietnam are also addressing the issue. The Responsible Travel Club (RTC) formed in 2009 by individuals dedicated to “building, practicing & developing responsible travel for sustainable growth in tourism to all regions in Vietnam.” In this article we’ll explore how organization such as RTC make operating responsibly much less of a challenge.

Operating responsible tourism activities will always come with its own set of challenges in Vietnam. How do you, as someone that wants to provide responsible tourism products to your customers, navigate these challenges?

Here’s how:

1. Look at the experience of the potential partner

This is probably the most obvious point on the list, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Always remember to look at the history of the company, how long it’s been established, and inquire about any other partnerships they have with international companies.

Companies that have a strong reputation, and thus have something to protect, often make the best partners in Vietnam. If they have demonstrated partnerships with other, well-respected companies from around the world then that’s even better.

Sadly, it’s quite common for newer companies, or companies that don’t value their reputation, to try and make a play for a larger chunk of your custom by cutting you out of the relationship. This can be very frustrating when you’ve spent so much time and money on building the relationship in the first place. It’s also not sustainable practice for the industry.

Companies that have been around for a while are more likely to understand that this isn’t a sustainable way of doing business and will respect you as a long-term partner.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you need to avoid new companies in Vietnam. It just means that you need to take extra care.

New companies are also less likely to be follow the right rules and regulations. Around 70% of small- and medium- sized companies don’t have adequate business knowledge when they start out and instead they learn as they go. It’s common for these companies to focus on revenue generation for the first few years by investing heavily in their sales team and neglecting the rest.

Regulations on the tourism industry are strict in Vietnam, but the authorities don’t always have the resources to enforce them. This makes it relatively easy for companies to ignore the regulations and flout their legal requirements.

If you’re going to make a long-term partnership in Vietnam, it goes without saying that you need to make sure that they’re obeying the law.

Remember that you can ask to see licenses from the tour guides they use or registration certificates required by the Vietnam government. If the company withholds documents like this, you have good reason to be suspicious.

2. Think about how the potential partner positions itself

Products like bird-watching photography tours or swimming tourism itineraries can be considered niche. But we know that responsible tourism is not niche, and that it transcends visitor types, from budget backpacker to discerning culture seeker to exclusive luxury traveler.

Be careful with companies that position themselves as “responsible” without qualifying their position in the market in Vietnam. It’s virtually impossible for a company to do everything and still maintain responsible products.

It’s more realistic if a company can explain what they are good at — whether its experiential travel or adventure travel — and then communicate that responsible travel practices run across their products. Travel companies in Vietnam should be treating responsible tourism like a theme, not a type.

This is where things do start to get tricky in Vietnam. If the company positions itself as a responsible travel company without specifying the types of tours they specialize in, that should immediately send alarm signals. But then what you should look out for?

Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that no tour types are inherently irresponsible in Vietnam. Here you’ll find tours targeted at backpackers that seek to engage meaningfully with local communities and minimize their impact on the environment. You’ll also find backpacker party cruises that have little concern for the effects on the environment or local communities.

Likewise, there are luxury tours organized by discerning tour companies that select sustainably built resorts that give back to the community. Other tour companies pay no attention to how the hotel was constructed or what damage its presence may be doing.

Even mass-tourism projects are not inherently irresponsible in Vietnam — as long as they are managed well and respect the regulations. Mass tourism projects that behave responsibly can still provide a lot of quality jobs and bolster protection for communities and the environment.

It’s then important to ask the company how responsible tourism is reflected in their products, from tours to accommodation. Don’t be afraid to ask the difficult questions. More on this later.

3. Be wary of cheap contract rates

Sure you need to be competitive, and you need to be able to offer your customers the best prices out there. But when you see that prices are way below what you might expect, or way below what other potential partners are offering, you need to think twice.

The tourism industry in Vietnam suffers from what we sometimes call “unhealthy competition.” There are a lot of players in the market offering similar tours and itineraries, so instead of competing on product they compete on price.

The price is pushed downward, and agents start pressuring their suppliers to lower their prices, too. Both agents and suppliers cut corners to maintain profitability and default on any commitments they may have made to the community and the environment.

This is an issue that many of us in the industry are acutely aware of and working hard to fight against. But the sad truth is that this is still a problem, and is likely to remain a problem for the next few years at least.

If the contract rates you’re getting are too good to be true, it’s probably because they are. Again, this is the time to start asking questions. Why is this five star hotel half the price of that one?

In Vietnam you’ll find that the larger, more established, and generally more expensive hotels are better positioned to invest in sustainable technology, like effective waste management and solar power energy generation. They are also more likely to invest in quality furniture that lasts a decade rather than cheap furniture that needs to be replaced every year.

As professionals in the responsible travel arena, we need to recognize that operating here comes with a price tag. A great race to the bottom has many losers, with the destination itself always being the biggest.

4. Understand how the potential partner selects suppliers

Does your potential partner work off responsible tourism criteria when selecting tour guides, accommodation providers, and transport suppliers? Because they should — and it needs to be comprehensive.

You know that selecting responsible suppliers from outside of the country is a real headache, and that’s why it’s best to partner with a local agency. They are here on the ground and can do the legwork for you, and good companies will already have a database of responsible suppliers.

But always ask how they select their suppliers. You need to ask to see their list of criteria.

The Responsible Travel Club (RTC) in Vietnam does have a list of criteria points to work off when selecting partners, which is why looking to partner with members of this club is a good start. The list is comprehensive, including:

· sustainability management

· legal compliance

· social policy

· human rights

· environmental protection

· community relations

· data protection

The RTC also understands that a “one size fits all” set of criteria points isn’t appropriate, and so they have different lists for partner agencies, transport, accommodation, excursions and activities, tour leaders and guides, and destinations.

If you’d like a copy of this document, you can email the RTC on rtcvietnam@gmail.com.

It’s important to also keep in mind that members of the RTC know that most suppliers won’t meet all the criteria points in Vietnam. So instead of demanding that all criteria points are met, members of the RTC can use this document to compare suppliers and select the most responsible. They also have monitoring and evaluation programs to see how the suppliers are improving year on year.

5. Ask about what training the potential partner carries out

Another question you’ll need to ask is what training your potential partner facilitates. Responsible partners should carry out not just comprehensive, but regular training. Staff turnover is generally higher in Vietnam than in other countries, which is why regular and consistent training is especially important.

And this shouldn’t just include training for internal and management staff; it should also include training for the freelance team, such as tour leaders, tour guides, and drivers.

Just like with supplier selection, this is a good chance to look at any formal affiliations, such as with the RTC. The RTC has an involved training program for tour guides, office staff, and management.

For example, for young tour guides they offer additional training focusing on respecting local communities, which is not usually something they learn when studying for their license in Vietnam. For more experienced tour guides, the RTC organizes farm trips to hotels and resorts that are trying to behave more sustainably.

Additionally, the RTC organizes regular trips to museums, theaters, and workshops that focus on respecting and preserving traditional arts and cultures.

For sales staff, training programs focus on explaining the importance of cultivating and maintaining long-term relationships with partners. For marketing staff, training focuses on things like producing materials that successfully market the product while remaining truthful and honest about what’s on offer.

The RTC also carries out training on how to deal with customer complaints, understanding that in order to be sustainable, staff need to know how to deal with complaints, act on feedback, and avoid repeat mistakes.

Hien Truong

Hi, my name is Hien. I’m managing director of Sisters Tours, Vietnam’s bespoke B2B agency. I’m also president of Vietnam’s only sustainable travel association: the Responsible Travel Club (RTC). Do you have questions? Send me an email at hien@sisterstoursvn.com and let’s get the conversation started.

Hien Truong

Hi, my name is Hien. I’m managing director of Sisters Tours, Vietnam’s bespoke B2B agency. I’m also president of Vietnam’s only sustainable travel association: the Responsible Travel Club (RTC). Do you have questions? Send me an email at hien@sisterstoursvn.com and let’s get the conversation started.

Want to get in contact with me?

Leave your email address below: