Trade pact may lift Vietnam visits

WASHINGTON -- Vietnam's fledgling tourism industry is sure to get a boost of confidence as a result of the landmark U.S. trade agreement signed last week here, according tour operators to Vietnam and other Asia travel experts.

The anticipated increase in travel to Vietnam -- much of it business travel -- will likely encourage U.S. airlines to begin flying to Hanoi, something no U.S. carrier currently, the experts said.

The agreement will almost certainly lead to an increase in the cost of lodging and airline tickets, although in the immediate future Vietnam will continue to be one of Asia's most affordable travel destinations, the experts said.

A quarter-century after the end of the Vietnam War, the two nations last Thursday signed the historic accord giving both countries access to one another's goods and services.

In the short term, "the publicity surrounding the improved relations will lower the barriers for people who were considering traveling to Vietnam, even if those barriers were imagined," said Bill Irwin, president of Houston, Texas-based Saigon Tourist USA, the U.S. representative for Saigon Tourist, the largest tour operator in Vietnam.

More importantly, Irwin said, the trade agreement could kick-start negotiations for U.S. airlines to start flying to Vietnam. He called the lack of air service from the U.S. to Hanoi the "biggest road block" for Vietnam's tourism industry.

"I don't think there are any major hotel companies that are not already there or considering setting up shop," said Irwin. "The airlines are a very different story." Irwin's company last year transported more than 4,000 Americans to Vietnam.

However, Saigon Tourist's biggest market by far is Japan, which sent some 15,000 people to its close neighbor. Vietnam has seen a sharp increase in tourists since opening up to the outside world in the last decade.

Some 530,000 tourists visited Vietnam during the first three months of this year, up 14% compared with the same period last year, according to the Vietnam Department of Tourism in Hanoi.

Before the agreement, the department predicted Vietnam would receive approximately 2 million visitors this year, an increase of 12.5% compared with 1999, when there were 1.7 million tourist arrivals.

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