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Vietnamese Government Finds More Than the Vietnam War Can Draw Tourists

The government of Vietnam, under pressure to provide jobs for its rising population, has launched reforms aimed at encouraging foreign investment and easing the country's economy into the world market. One of the most successful sectors is tourism. Correspondent Scott Bobb has been visiting Vietnam, and filed this report from Ho Chi Minh City.

It is mid-morning in downtown Ho Chi Minh City and a guide is escorting Japanese tourists through the War Museum. With its aging tanks and artillery pieces parked in the yard, it one of many facilities here dedicated to the Vietnam War.

Inside, the guide explains a wall of photographs from the period. In one, crying Vietnamese children seek shelter from a bombing raid. In others, American soldiers, their faces lined with fatigue, carry wounded comrades.

The war, which ended in 1975 with the victory of the communist government based in Hanoi, was waged originally against the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam - but, in its middle years, more against the United States itself.

An American visitor in his thirties, who gave his name only as John, is too young to remember the war.

"It's pretty interesting. I came over on business and then did some sightseeing," he said. "[I] definitely will schedule a couple of extra days in the future to do a little more sightseeing."

When Vietnam first began to open up to tourists, most of the visitors were drawn by memories of the war, which involved troops from dozens of nations.

Increasingly, however, they are coming for other attractions, the country's 3,000 kilometers of beaches, for example, or cultural excursions among its 100 ethnic groups.

A director at the Tourism Administration, Nguyen Hai Anh, says tourism now provides three percent of Vietnam's gross national product or $1.3 billion, and provides nearly one million jobs.

"Our government policy is to promote sustainable tourism in Vietnam," he said. "And in the last few years tourism has become a key sector of the national economy."

He says tourism last year drew 2.5 million visitors and has grown nearly 10 percent a year in the past nine years.

Mr. Hai Anh says the government is trying to attract more foreign investors to the industry.

Karl John is one such investor. He heads a multinational investment group called Contacts International Hospitality. The group wants to join some 250 state-owned hotels across the country into a conglomerate and upgrade them to international status.

Mr. John says Vietnam is developing in leaps and bounds. He says there are some major problems, but government officials are trying to address these.

"Bureaucracy is a huge negative. But they are working to streamline things," he said. "People talk about corruption. Again, they are doing something about that. But it takes time and you have to have a lot of patience to succeed in Vietnam."

Mr. John says construction standards and training also need to be improved. The private sector has the capital and expertise to address these problems if it is allowed to.

The government has begun to privatize state-owned companies in the hotel and travel-booking industries.

Mr. John says it can be difficult for foreigners to invest in industries like aviation, or certain coastal areas deemed important to national security. However, he says, it is not impossible for an investor who perseveres.

"If you're able to show the Vietnamese the benefit to them," he said, "the benefit to the nation, of opening up this particular industry or this particular area, over time you will get their agreement. You will have to do a lot of convincing."

Vietnamese tourism officials say they are working on these problems. They want to double tourist visits by next year.

The government recently dropped visa requirements for citizens of eight Asian nations, including Japan and South Korea. And this year it opened a publicity department to promote Vietnam in foreign markets.