The Hoi An entrance fee debacle - Rusty Compass travel blog

The Hoi An entrance fee debacle

| 07 May 2014
, 0 Comment
07 May 2014

World Heritage listed Hoi An, a long time favourite with travellers to Vietnam, has created a stir by imposing an entry fee for visitors. Few would argue that tourists visiting the town shouldn't be funding its preservation. The question is how that funding should be raised?

I've visited Hoi An at least once a year for the past twenty years. Like most travellers, I love the place.

But it's hard to know where to start in listing the silliness of Hoi An's decision to charge tourists $6USD to enter the old town.

The need for the town to raise money from tourists to pay for its upkeep is not in question. In fact the town should be raising a lot more than 6 measly dollars from each tourist.

The question is how?

One of the things that draws travellers to places like Hoi An around the world, is the idea of visiting a living and breathing old town. Plenty of critics have already noted Hoi An's decline as a living old town as tourist shops and restaurants proliferate and the original residents sell up or move out. But a visit to Hoi An's market gives hope that a living old town still exists as do a few of the old original businesses like the barber shop in this video.

The strange thing about most tourists is that they pour scorn on places that are considered too "touristy". Tourism officials have their work cut out for them balancing the need to manage a tourist town like Hoi An and keep it feeling "authentic". Putting a fee on entry to Hoi An town is a sure-fire way to forever brand the places as a cheap Disneyesque tourist trap. Living, breathing heritage towns don't have entrance fees. Disneyland and other fun parks do.

If Hoi An isn't raising enough cash from tourists, the first thing it needs to do is improve its heritage offerings. The town's historic buildings are a delight. But the quality of the information provided to travellers is derisory - an insult to those with a genuine interest in history. The old houses are mostly little more than glorified souvenir stands with a token nod to a couple historical facts. The museums have barely improved in the twenty-plus years I've been visiting. The Chinese Assembly halls are also information free zones.

Hoi An's
Photo: Mark Bowyer Hoi An's "official" ticketed tourist spots are information free zones that have barely changed in two decades.
Hoi An market still buzzes with local life.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Hoi An market still buzzes with local life.

The investment in a professional heritage narrative for Hoi An would be minimal compared to the size of the town's tourism economy.

Someone needs to start telling Hoi An's story.

If the museums, historic houses and assembly halls get serious about imparting an experience of some meaning to visitors, they could charge $3 or $4USD or more each - easily exceeding $6USD for travellers visiting 2 or 3 places.

Along with thousands of others, I paid $15USD to revisit Bangkok's Grand Palace for a couple of hours last week.

To improve its heritage offering, Hoi An simply needs to look at what happens in the rest of the world. There are plenty of examples.

Why doesn't the town offer a quality audio walking tour sharing the history of its buildings and people? These alone could be offered for $6. But they need to be good - a mix of entertainment and quality information. They need to treat travellers like intelligent people. One of the best I recall was at the massive Merangarh Fort in Jodhpur India. There are plenty of other examples and Hoi An is a big enough tourist destination that it should be setting itself best practice heritage standards.

The massive Merangarh Fort in Jodhpur, India provides visitors with a superb audioguide.
Photo: Mark Bowyer The massive Merangarh Fort in Jodhpur, India provides visitors with a superb audioguide.

One of the more bizarre revelations from the recent local media coverage of Hoi An's ticket plans was the claim from local officials that the town only raises $220,000 in taxes each year from the local tourist industry. If true, there's something chronically wrong with their tax collection.

Thanh Nien newspaper estimated that Hoi An receives between 3000 and 4000 tourists per day - which totals around 1.2 million per year. A quick calculation based on those numbers would indicate that the tax take per tourist is 20cents (around 4000VND).

Even the most pessimistic projections would value the annual turnover of Hoi An's tourist economy - its hotels, tailors, souvenir shops, restaurants, bars - at tens of millions. Where's all that money going and why isn't any of it making its way back into preservation of the town?

The banner reminds Hoi An locals of their responsibility to pay tax.
Photo: Mark Bowyer The banner reminds Hoi An locals of their responsibility to pay tax.

So many tourists, so little tax revenue?
Photo: Mark Bowyer So many tourists, so little tax revenue?

Hoi An should focus on improving its heritage experience - and raising money from that experience. A forced ticket purchase is a lazy solution that rewards the town's mediocre heritage performance and punishes tourists wanting to put their money into the local economy. A lose lose for Hoi An. And if the town's tax take from its booming tourism economy is as low as has been reported, there's something chronically wrong as well.

Placing booths and security at the entrance to the town will be a disaster for brand Hoi An. And it will confirm the critic's view that the town is nothing but a tourist trap.

And that's before the myriad administrative nightmares of the scheme are considered such as multiple day use for long stay visitors, the terrible spectacle of ID checks to go and pay for your hundreds of dollars of purchases from Hoi An's tailors and so on. The previous system was bad enough.

Will they pay $6 for the right to spend their money in Hoi An?
Photo: Mark Bowyer Will they pay $6 for the right to spend their money in Hoi An?

Hoi An's government has done some impressive things to improve the traveller experience in recent years. The closure of the town to motorised transport was a very good call. Mooted plans to make Hoi An and surrounds more bicycle friendly will be fantastic. I'm a fan of their non-smoking initiatives as well - though, as with everywhere else in Vietnam, I'm not sure how they're playing out in practice.

Primitive vehicles please
Photo: Mark Bowyer Primitive vehicles please

But this initiative could undo a lot of their good work. And Hoi An's tourist economy will be poorer for it.

Heritage and cultural travellers are very happy to part with their cash. They tend to have lots of it too. But not under duress. And not if they're treated like children visiting a fun park.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
Support Rusty Compass
Rusty Compass is an independent travel guide. We’re focused on providing you with quality, unbiased, travel information. That means we don't receive payments in exchange for listings and mostly pay our own way. We’d like tourism to be a positive economic, environmental and cultural force and we believe travellers deserve disclosure from publishers. Spread the word about Rusty Compass, and if you're in Saigon, pop in to The Old Compass Cafe and say hi. It’s our home right downtown on Pasteur St. You can also check out our unique tours of Ho Chi Minh City and Sydney at Make a financial contribution using the link below. Even small amounts make a difference. Thanks and travel well!

  • Previous
  • Next

There are no comments yet.