Airline, casino builder target Vietnam's skies and beaches

An Australian low-cost airline and a Canadian luxury resort and casino developer have launched two ambitious projects that aim to revolutionise Vietnam’s fast-growing tourism industry.

Jetstar, the budget offshoot of Australian carrier Qantas, teamed up with Vietnam’s Pacific Airlines to launch Jetstar Pacific on Friday, setting the stage for a dogfight with state-run Vietnam Airlines.

The following day Canadian developers broke ground on what they say will become Vietnam’s premier destination, a $4,2-billion resort and casino strip near southern Ho Chi Minh City, due to kick off in late 2010.

Between them, the two projects push forward a tourism industry that has grown strongly since the communist-ruled country emerged from post-war isolation in the 1990s to accept a trickle of backpackers.

Vietnam now aims to boost its domestic and international tourism industry—which has grown into one of the country’s five top economic sectors—to take on South-East Asian neighbours such as Thailand and Malaysia.

Vietnam last year received 4,2-million foreign visitors, 16% more than in 2006. The World Travel and Tourism Council ranks it as number four on its list of the world’s fastest-growing travel destinations.

Visitors from neighbouring China made up the largest group in 2007, followed by South Korea, the United States, Japan and Australia.

Jetstar Pacific—at a lavish Hanoi launch gala on Friday, featuring Aussie marketing glitz, dance shows and lots of dry ice—promised to shake up Vietnam’s aviation sector.

“As Vietnam’s first low-cost, value-based airline, Jetstar Pacific will change air travel in Vietnam by making it more affordable for more people to fly,” said Jetstar Pacific CEO Luong Hoai Nam.

The airline now has four Boeing 737s, with four more to come this year, and plans to add 30 Airbus A320s by 2014 with the option of drawing in additional Jetstar aircraft from the regional fleet.

Jetstar CEO Alan Joyce said the carrier entered Vietnam—an economy of 86-million people with a decade of growth above 7%—hoping to “tap into a huge untapped market as the economy grows”.

“We felt that if you get your timing right you could be the biggest brand in Asia,” he said. “Vietnam is a very important part in that jigsaw puzzle.”

Stodgy service

Vietnam, where many early visitors were put off by state-run hotels and stodgy service, has now embarked on building up a string of luxury hotels in major cities and seaside areas to cash in on the high-end tourism sector.

International hotels are starting to crowd the “China Beach” area near Danang, and major resort plans are on the drawing board for the southern island of Phu Quoc, off the Cambodian coast.

Toronto-based Asian Coast Development (ACDL) hopes to trump them all with the Ho Tram Strip of resorts and “Las Vegas-style” casinos in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province, 80km south-west of Ho Chi Minh City.

“This is going to be the largest development of its kind in the history of Vietnam,” said ACDL chairperson Michael Aymong.

“We’re building five major resorts, two full-scale casinos, a Greg Norman golf course, a celebrity tennis facility, a marina and a Dolphin Quest marine habitat, where families can swim face-to-face with dolphins.”

The first phase will include two hotels with 2 300 rooms, retail areas and a convention centre, and the entire 169ha stretch is scheduled to be finished within a decade.

Vietnam bans gambling for its citizens but allows foreign passport holders to visit a casino and use the betting facilities of major hotels.

Aymong said he could not comment on what Vietnam’s government may do but added: “I imagine that the government will examine and consider allowing Vietnamese to gamble in the next two or three years.”

For now, he said, “we’re targeting the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese, the Australians and the Russians.”

He said the casino and resort strip would be family-friendly with a strong environmental theme and complement, rather than compete with, Macau.

“This is a different type of product,” he said. “It’s a destination resort. Our real competition is going to be Singapore.”—AFP

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