Luxury resorts are springing up along central Vietnam’s beautiful beaches, turning this heritage-rich area into the next frontier for upscale tourism, writes Andy Tran.
In the beginning
Furama Resort trumpeted the dawn of a new day in upscale tourism in central Vietnam when it opened a decade ago. “At that time, many people said we were crazy to pour millions of dollars into this place, which had nothing but deserted beach,” recalls Huynh Tan Vinh, Furama’s deputy general director.
Nowadays the Furama could be described as the pioneer that beat the rush for gold. Of course, it wasn’t plain sailing to set up shop in central Vietnam in the late nineties. A number of resort projects which would have neighboured the Furama were shelved due to low demand.
But Furama’s business gradually picked up as a result of the country’s growing tide of tourism and a second wave of construction eventually followed. In the last three years there have been openings for Golden Sand, Palm Gardens and the Nam Hai along Cua dai beach in Hoi an as well as the Imperial Hotel in hue “Now, there is a boom in construction of resorts in this region,” says Vinh.
“We are expanding as well by building villas, hotels and shops on the site next door.” Furama is advertising its expansion plan on a series of posters that stretch for a kilometre or so along the coast road. They’re not alone. All along the same road from Hue via Danang to Hoi An omnipresent posters reveal artist’s impressions of the luxury resorts to come. The coast would appear to have been carved up by hotel developers.
For thousands of American Danang has always been a name synonymous with R’n’R. The US Marines serving in Vietnam came here to find some rare respite away from the battle zone, chug beers and bodysurf. Today, Americans are coming back with R’nR on their minds, not only as tourists but as developers.
Across from where there once was an American military base are signs indicating the imminent arrival of Hyatt, Raffles and Crowne Plaza. Peter Ryder, a New Yorker, and his company, Indochina Capital, are among the most eager to exploit local tourism.
One and a half years ago, Ryder helped open the Nam Hai, managed by GHM whose founder Adrian Zecha has made his name operating luxury hotels from Malaysia to Miami. Each of the Nam Hai’s 40 residential villas has a butler, a private pool and an ocean view; prices for the seven units still available start at $1 million. Daily room rates for the resort’s 60 hotel villas begin at $550. Indochina Capital has recently broken ground for another resort, the Hyatt Regency Danang.
Due to open in 2010, the resort will feature 226 guest rooms and residential developments, including 150 condominiums and 30 two-storey oceanfront villas for sale. “Indochina Capital’s vision for this project is a testament to the group’s ambition to put Vietnam on a par with the world’s most distinguished destinations for travellers,” explains Grahame Carder, vice president of marketing at Hyatt Hotels & Resorts in Asia Pacific.
Ryder says he expects Hyatt’s reputation will attract legions of new travellers to Vietnam from around the world. “The wider world is just waking up to this region,” said Ryder. “The days of Good Morning, Vietnam are long over, and the Hyatt’s enthusiasm for this project attests to that.”
Dubai’s Kingdom Hotel Investments is developing a 150-room, $65 million luxury resort called the Raffles Danang, scheduled to open in 2011. VinaCapital is also thinking big, with three properties under construction, including the 100-villa Sofitel resort near Hoi An, a 270-hectare complex with a 350 room hotel and 18 hole golf course, in the first phase, near Marble Mountains and a third project featuring luxury residences, hotels and a shopping mall in downtown Danang.
But wait, there’s more. Singaporean developer Banyan Tree is drawing up a masterplan for the region’s first integrated resort on Lang co beach 40 kilometres from Danang and 70 kilometres from Hue. The development will feature more than 1,000 hotel rooms, villas and a golf course. Golf, a sport that Duncan McLean, the general manager of Furama, says is a “high end market visitors often ask about”, is set to become part of the landscape in a big way.
Legends Greg Norman is molding tracks for a course in Danang whilst Colin Montgomerie expects to open a course bearing his name this summer in Quang Nam province. Meanwhile the Korean firms Daewon and Lafien are also investing in two layouts in the Danang area.
Besides the vast coastline endowed with stunning beaches, developers are also hoping to cash in on the region’s historical appeal, including a number of UNESCO-accredited World Heritage sites such as Hoi An’s old town, the My Son ruins and Hue imperial city not to mention the natural beauty found in Phong Nha– Ke Bang national park.
Guests are already pampering themselves in the luxurious spas at the Nam Hai, Golden Sand and Furama, which also boasts a highly popular gaming centre. The 600-room Crowne Plaza, which is under construction near Furama, will also feature gambling and entertainment facilities.
The Gold Coast
For tour operators like Michael Johnston, the general manager of Intrepid Indochina, centralVietnam is a drawcard and as the country continues to grow as a tourist destination, there will be more people making repeat visits to this region.
“The coastline is centralVietnam’s most famous attraction with beautiful beaches and scuba diving opportunities, but the mountains also offer spectacular forests and wildlife viewing potential,” says Johnston. McLean points out that the more hotels and resorts that open will further help promote the destination as a beach holiday-hub, creating a demand that would see Vietnam airlines increase their domestic flight frequency as well as entice international airlines to open up direct flights to Danang.
“For me this is a win-win situation as more marketing activities will begin to attract tourists, so more wholesale tour operators will feature centralVietnam in their tour programmes in Asia,” adds McClean.
Operating hotels and resorts in a remote location like centralVietnam has its difficulties, particularly when taking access into account.
Michael Bischof, vice president of Swiss-belhotel International, says most of the guests staying at resorts in centralVietnam come by air and “flights to Danang and Hoi An are always full”. Central Vietnam has more airports than any other region in the country, with four facilities in Danang, Quang Nam, Hue and Quang Binh. However, there is a lack of flights to this region and, currently, a lack of capacity.
Only Danang receives overseas flights, from Bangkok and Singapore. “Only with more flights can resorts in the central coastal area operate at full capacity,” says Bischof. Tiger Airways and Pacific Airlines used to run weekly services from Singapore and Hong Kong to Danang, but both had to abandon the routes a few years ago because at the time there was little demand for travelling to the region.
“Although the demand is here, the beach is here, and the cultural assets are here, the airlines are not. Not yet,” says Wayne Duberly, general manager of The Nam Hai. Now, with more and more resorts plus golf courses getting off the ground, hoteliers are calling for airlines to fly to Danang.
The Nam Hai recently convened a meeting with officials from Vietnam Airlines, Pacific Airlines, Silkair and Cathay Pacific to discuss tourism in the region. Viva Macau and Asiana Airlines are also said to be interested. Danang airport is proceeding with a plan to build a new international terminal whilst a Singaporean group has talked with authorities in Hue about the possibility of upgrading Phu Bai airport.
“Hong Kong could be a key link in all of this,” says Christian DeBoer, director of sales and marketing for The Nam Hai. “It’s a major international hub only an hour away, but at the moment there are no direct flights from there. If we saw bi-weekly service, I think we’d also see Danang and Hoi An become a popular alternative to places like Bali and Phuket.”
But it is not only flights that centralVietnam needs to attract more tourists, says Johnston from Intrepid Indochina.
“Train trips between the major cities of Hanoi and Ho chi minh city to Danang and Hue need to have cabins cleaned regularly and no smoking rules enforced to attract customers,” he says. Johnston points out that the region also needs to diversify its attractions and therefore it should not only build high-end resorts but also a variety of accommodation such as home stays and guest house facilities.
A more critical problem, Johnston says, and all hoteliers agree on this, is the lack of qualified staff and hospitality training. “The major challenge facing all tourism service providers in Vietnam is finding staff with sufficient customer service training and knowledge, who also speak other languages,” he says.
With more than a decade experience running Furama, Huynh Tan Vinh predicts that within the next three years Danang and Hoi An will open more than 3,000 rooms and that means at least 4,500 more hospitality staff is needed. “There is an urgent need to Train more hospitality staff,” says Vinh.
“Even half of the 2,600 staff currently working in hospitality industry needs to be retrained.” In centralVietnam, there is no university dedicated to hospitality training. There is a small tourism school in Hue that can not meet demand for high-quality training. Hotels have to organise in-house training courses but this is not enough.
The region is in particular lacking quality management staff, chefs and room cleaners and those who can communicate in foreign languages. Hoteliers have no alternatives but to try and entice staff from other resorts. With thousands of more rooms to open in the next few years, it seems hoteliers in the central region will have to compete with each other not only to attract guests but also hospitality workers.
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