Traditional unique products
Four years ago, Tan Phong commune in Tien Giang province’s Cai Lay district was a relatively unknown destination for tourists visiting the Mekong River Delta and its products lacked any special appeal, being similar to those of other localities in the region.
The occasional group of foreign guests would go to the commune for a homestay experience, but tended to leave after a day or so as there was little of interest to make them stay longer. But since the launch of Mekong Rustic Tien Giang, the number of visitors coming to the Mekong River has increased significantly, and Mekong Rustic and its second establishment in Phong Dien, Can Tho, are gaining popularity among foreign visitors to the Mekong thanks to their model of sustainable values that aims to support and protect the environment and society.
Nguyen Ngoc Bich, CEO of Mekong Rustic, says he always aims to develop sustainable tourism by working with local people to introduce visitors to the culture, habits and hospitality of the local community, where priceless traditional values are preserved.
“Why do we have to follow foreign standards but dismiss the tradition of local specialties? Not all tourists who come to Vietnam eat pizza, drink Starbucks coffee and Heineken beer and stay at the Hilton hotel. Most customers want to experience local and traditional elements such as the culture, cuisine, activities and hospitality of the local people. Therefore, tourism products should be based on these factors to make a difference and build a brand for Vietnamese tourism according to the combination of local elements and international standards,” Bich said.
Although there are many community-based tourism projects built according to this model, there are also failed projects or variations to other models in Vietnam. Mekong Rustic aims to build a tourism product in which the element of community-based tourism is set as the core value to promote and preserve its own cultural identity while improving local livelihoods. This model has been successful for Mekong Rustic.
Currently, Mekong Rustic is cooperating with about ten households in Tien Giang and Can Tho, training them to develop tourism, building their own concept tourism products and bringing visitors to these facilities. Environmental protection is also a strong focus, most of the Mekong Rustic’s interior and construction materials are recycled wood, solar energy is used to save energy resources, the coconut leaf roofs cool down the bungalows to minimise the use of air conditioning, and plastic waste is kept to a minimum for example by storing water in glass containers.
In these small but important ways Mekong Rustic is making a difference and creating an attractive tourism product.
Craft Link, a non-profit organisation operating in the field of traditional Vietnamese handicrafts, supports ethnic minority groups, disabled groups and traditional craft villages to restore cultural traditions, develop handicraft production and increase income for local communities.
Craft Link accompanies producers by providing the skills and information they need to create high quality, practical products that are consistent with the ever changing needs of the market. This organisation also supports the output of products through a system of three large stores in Hanoi, fair trade programs and exports to many countries around the world.
Currently, Craft Link sells handicrafts, fashion items and accessories of 63 production groups across Vietnam and has become the go-to option for many foreign tourists seeking Vietnamese cultural souvenirs. Craft Link has made an important contribution to the creation of more attractive tourism products, while contributing to improving the lives of hundreds of families across Vietnam.
Nga, a lacquer painter for Craft Link’s products in a traditional craft village in Hanoi, said, “Since I have been working here, my income has been higher. The working environment is better here than in other places and I can learn from the other artisans in the group so I can manage my life better. My dream is that the craft of this village develops further so the whole village can develop.”
Responsibility to the community
The story of Mekong Rustic and Craft Link is one of the best examples of tourism product diversification in the business model to support and promote community development.
Although it is possible to choose a more convenient path with higher profit, those businesses operating in the tourism sector have chosen to accompany local people, advise them and direct them to make sustainable tourism with long-term effectiveness.
As well as addressing problems within their business, they also contribute to solving environmental issues, improving the quality of local human resources and creating a good impression of Vietnamese tourism in the eyes of international tourists. In the context of sustainable tourism development, responsible tourism is becoming a global trend.
The success of these businesses has changed the perspective and improper practices that existed for many years in the Vietnamese tourism industry. Instead of overheated development based on maximising the exploitation of natural resources, these businesses choose to take a slower development path but one which is committed to saving and using resources responsibly.
The promotion of indigenous cultures must go hand in hand with the preservation and development of them for future generations. Respect must be given to these cultures and attempts to change them must not be made, especially with regards to the traditional cultural activities of ethnic minority communities. This is also a new direction that many new tourism enterprises in Vietnam are learning and applying.
Chu Trang, owner of Trang Senh Homestay, a famous homestay in Hua Tat village, in Son La’s Van Ho commune said, tourists come here to experience the traditional culture of Mong people, therefore the accommodation, the landscape, the food and the living style in Trang Senh Homestay are kept intact.
“We have organized cultural exchanges with local boys and girls and built an art team to perform dances, songs, and traditional festivals of the Mong people. Visitors are very interested in participating in these programs.”
Phi Thi Thu Khuyen, vice head of the communications department at Vietrantour said, in the past, activities expressing the responsibility of tourism enterprises included charity tours or activities such as donating gifts, money, clothes and books to people and children in disadvantaged areas. These activities are organized regularly by many businesses but they lack efficiency or a focus on what is actually needed and only solve the problems in the short term.
However, along with the general development trend of the tourism industry, tourism enterprises are beginning to make much more effective contributions to society such as developing tour products in the direction of green tourism and environmental responsibility, or becoming the long-term companion of many meaningful charitable programs.
Nevertheless, the development of sustainable tourism products takes time and perseverance, while the majority of tourism operators only focus on short-term benefits. These operators tend to want to give up after a short time of not seeing clear results. Phan Thi My Sau, a citizen cooperating with Nguyen Ngoc Bich in Mekong Rustic Tien Giang lamented, “Previously we only had two homestays and the monthly income was quite high. Since our cooperation with Mekong Rustic began, the number of rooms has increased to eleven, but the cost of investing in upgrading rooms and services was quite expensive, so although the number of customers has increased and is more stable, the revenue has not yet reached expectations and it has not been enough for us to recover capital in a short time.”