BICH VY INVESTIGATES THE GROWING DEMAND BY SAIGON CITY DWELLERS FOR A WEEKEND GETAWAY, AND HOW AGRITOURISM COULD FIT THE BILL
Increasing demand for green space become a pioneer of a fast-growing metropolis in Vietnam and an economic example that other Southern cities are urged to follow.
Construction sites mushroom, new houses and buildings take up spaces previously occupied by green parks and pristine river channels. People wake up to noise from construction instead of the chirping of birds. They inhale dust from vehicles' exhaust pipes instead of brisk air from early winds.
Day by day, as people become tired of the noise and dust, the hustle and bustle of this big city, they seek any chance to escape. Urban citizens are in search of genuine locales where they can relax by a peaceful riverbank, play hide-and-seek on green hayfields, or catch fresh fish from clean lakes.
They desire more time with their families and an opportunity to show their children (without the aid of modern media) how natural creatures live peacefully in the environment.
The area around the Crescent Lake (Phu My Hung, District 7) seems to be busy every weekend. Parents take their children here to enjoy fresh air blowing from the lake. Little children can run wild, releasing their abundant energy, as vehicles are prohibited in this area.
A line of trees shade a green field where some adults decide to relax, books in hand.
This seems to be one of only a few precious green spots still available in the midst of this ever-expanding city.
People wish to find more places like this either in their neighbourhood or further afield.
Modest supply to meet heavy demand I visited Tram Chim National Park on a hot, sunny day in May.
While waiting at the front desk, I chatted with a family of four. They astounded me, saying that they had come all the way from Saigon to Dong Thap by public bus. The cost of a good hotel is a bit high these days, thanks to the crisis, while the drive from Saigon to other Southern provinces is more convenient than before,' explained the father.
He is among a growing number of urban citizens whose busy lives make it nigh on impossible to take days off for travelling. Many of them now prefer weekend day trips to overnight tours.
Having a fun trip at a low cost is a simple goal of many families.
Recognising this increasingly growing demand, tour agents have launched tours that take people to rural areas where vast empty spaces are still in abundance. Saigontourist has started 'Weekend Tours' to Vung Tau, Dong Nai, Cu Chi, and the Mekong Delta provinces every weekend, in the hope that it can give urban citizens chances to learn about farmers' lives or the beauty of wild forests.
In fact, some agents have even diversified their services to meet their customers' needs. For instance, knowing that urban citizens are fond of nature, albeit thirsty for privacy, tours to Phu Quoc or Van Phong Bay allow to customers spend their time alone on the island. Customers can swim in the pristine scenery to their heart's content before phoning their private tour guides to take them back to the mainland.
Unfortunately, these tours usually do not have large amounts of repeat customers. The reason for that being that they focus too much on the 'sight-seeing' factor without promoting family bonding and healthy living - something that customers can hardly find in big cities.
Many complain that 'weekend tours' usually repeat the same format, rendering customers bored after more than one visit. 'The quality of service is not good value for money given the amount spent on such a tour,' said Ms Tran, who lives in District 7. As a result, customers often end their weekend trips disappointed, which will indeed have a negative effect on the number of new or repeat customers.
By contrast, some tour agents have admitted that they do not put much focus on 'weekend tours' as such target customers are inherently ndependent travellers.
It is rare to have a large group of travellers join such tours. Hence, the agents usually endure high costs, especially when the tours cannot meet the required number of travellers.
Agritourism on the rise
Green spaces aside, urban citizens increasingly demand a place where they can learn about agriculture. That is why agritourism is becoming more popular. To escape city life, people occasionally like to visit farms for short stays.
Agritourism, with its more than two hundred years of history in the world, finally makes sense to many Vietnamese farmers, who are finding ways to diversify their incomes as increasing urbanisation often pressures them into selling their farms. Ba Vi Farm in Hanoi has proved to be a very successful example of this business model.
In Southern Vietnam, agritourism has started to blossom in Western and Mekong Delta areas, where farming is still the main source of income for many families. If fifteen years ago, Saigonese only had Cat Lai as the choice to go fruit picking and sightseeing, they now have a variety of options to choose from, from Binh Chanh Village to Long Khanh garden, from Cu Chi Cultural Minority Village to Vinh San Garden House.
However, instead of making agriculture the focus, many farmers shift their focus entirely to tourism. The scene of a genuine farm being taken care of by hard-working farmers is often replaced by entertainment areas such as ostrich riding or car racing, which are not relevant to what people want to learn about agriculture.
While visiting several farms in Southern Vietnam, we have been impressed by the entrepreneurial way many farmers have organised their farms. They invest in all sorts of activities. Swimming pools, duck-racing, pig-racing, orchid gardens, lakes and animals; often all in one place.
Unfortunately though, except for a few references to village life here and there, we hardly find any comprehensive information on farm life, which surely should be the main theme of such places.
'An agritourism enterprise is a business conducted by a farm operator for the enjoyment and education of the public, and to promote the products of the farm, and thereby generate additional farm income'. That's how Duncan Hilchey, a US expert on organic farming, defined agritourism. On that basis, Southern Vietnam neglects the 'education' element as farmers focus too much on the 'income' part.
Recently, however, some international organisations such as the Dutch Farmers Association have initiated projects that promote agritourism in the Mekong Delta. They hope to help farmers to understand the true purposes of agritourism, which must go beyond the purely financial. Farmers should inform tourists about a range of community activities. Tourists can also experience farm culture through homestay visits or by dining with farming households.