Strolling around Hội An on a recent sunny afternoon, classical music playing softly on the omnipresent speakers, the tropical breeze wafting through the trees and alleys, was both a sad and peaceful experience. For the uninitiated, this charming little town, a short drive south of Danang in central Viet Nam, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its old town is recognized as a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port that was active from the 15th to the 19th century.
In 2017, Hội An welcomed 3.2 million tourists, 1.78 million of whom were foreigners, a year-on-year increase of 21.66%. That year it ranked seventh among the world’s top 15 cities, according to the readers of Travel + Leisure. In 2019, the magazine’s readers voted it the “Best City in the World” to visit.
It was eerily quiet, many shops, restaurants, and hotels closed, waiting patiently for foreign tourists to return via a COVID-19 vaccine entry program still under development. (Quảng Nam province, where Hội An is located, is awaiting official approval to become the first locality in Viet Nam to welcome foreigner travelers who have received their COVID-19 vaccination.) I only saw a handful of foreigners, present company included. Some merchants have temporarily shifted to other businesses while others are no doubt living off their savings. We were overwhelmed by men and women selling boat rides, clothing, and a variety of other services and products. One woman even said – very directly and pleadingly – “Won’t you buy something?” Also missing were foreign colleagues who normally join our education fair in Danang, another sign of the COVID times. On the bright side, everything was cleaner, including the river. The streets belonged to the locals with children playing and Vietnamese eating and drinking al fresco.
2020 was the year from hell for Viet Nam’s tourism industry, which contributed about 9.2% to the nation’s GDP in 2019, a banner year in which it welcomed a record 18 million foreign visitors with revenue of $30.8 billion. China was the largest source of tourists (32%), followed by South Korea (24%), Japan (5.29%), and Taiwan (5.14%). Before the first cases of COVID-19 were reported on 23 January 2020, the government had a target of 20 million visitors with projected revenue of $35 billion. Last year, Viet Nam had only 3.7 million visitors, a decrease of nearly 80% compared to 2019. There were 56 million domestic tourists nationwide, a decrease of 34.1%.
It was the first time in my many visits to this special place that I was able to take photos of empty streets and shuttered businesses. More beautiful than ever without the crush of tourists. Of course, they are the lifeblood of the local economy, which desperately needs them to recover and once again prosper. Many of the people of Hội An have experienced far worse, including perennial flooding and war. This, too, shall pass, maybe even by the end of 2021, and certainly by this time next year. In the meantime, there are the Vietnamese tourists who will come to enjoy everything this UNESCO World Heritage Site has to offer.
Shalom (שלום), MAA