The hill resort city of Dalat in Vietnam Highlands – some 280 km north of Saigon and 130 km west of Nha Trang- is located 1,500 m high over sea level. It has been well known for over a century for its cool climate, its beautiful flowers, its fruits and vegetable production -this is for example one of the rare places in Southeast Asia with a production of artichokes and blueberries!- and its pine forests.
Its excellent climate turned it during the French colonial time into a health resort by a visionary bacteriologist, Alexandre Yersin. a superb French colonial architecture (mostly Art Deco style) spread on its hills and around the Great Lake.
Villas were first built in French eclectic style but in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Art Deco became the craze of the moment and Dalat turned into one of the city with the largest collection of Art Deco villas. At some point, they were some 800 villas built in that style as well as hotels, schools, churches and a rail station . Even the Vietnamese Emperor succumbed to the trend and had a typical art deco palace built between 1933 and 1938.
Dalat has obviously all to seduce travellers. So far, the city of 350,000 inhabitants has been an attractive destination for domestic travellers. The city welcomed around 5.9 million visitors last year, up from 5.6 million in 2016. The total number of foreign travellers grew by almost 50%, jumping between 2016 and 2017 from 270,000 to 400,000 according to first estimates. The opening of international flights to Bangkok by Thai Vietjet and regular leisure flights to China start to show their impact on international arrivals.
When looking at local Vietnamese media, mention is often done about the efforts of Lam Dong Provincial authorities -where Dalat is located- to develop high quality tourism. But so far, it seems that little has been done to really provide to travellers -especially international ones- an easy tourism experience in town.
Like practical information. Starting for example at the airport, no one is there to give information how to reach town. Or how much a fare would be cost with a taxi. Many travellers then end up paying inflated fares with drivers then tampering with the taximeter… Then in town, they are almost no signage in English indicating the main attractions- not to mention of town maps. The only signage seen in the city centre points to the direction to reach Bao dai Summer Palace. And unfortunately, few people masters English in town.
Which points to another issue. The fact that people still do not have an ‘accommodating’ or at least ‘understanding’ behaviour visitors. For example, at many sites people are getting angry and even rude when tourists take pictures -even outside from premises. Education should then be done to be sure that locals can understand the value of welcoming tourists and treat them at least politely. Signage to forbid people to take pictures should eventually been installed if it is considered by locals as a harm or annoying.
Maybe tourism authorities consider domestic visitors their absolute priorities while eventually foreign tourists will come in groups. So far, groups of Chinese tourists start to be ubiquitous in town with the problem to manage properly large groups of them.
But how about quality tourism for a town which built its reputation on its charm and tranquil, elegant atmosphere? For example, why not to create heritage trails, nature trails, agro-tourism tours taking visitors with electric vehicles for example to specific areas in town? Some private travel agencies start to organise such tours but they remain a minority.Creativity should be the mantra of Dalat. Art Deco heritage, Royal Palaces or Agro-tourism circuits but also nature trails, religious trails, lake experience could be some of the ways to raise the quality of tourism.
Unfortunately, as rapid urbanisation is taking its toll on town, Dalat assets are mostly under threat. Overdevelopment has seen the vanishing of at least half of all former French buildings, often replaced by hideous constructions and even tall structures. They have been reports about developers putting even acid on trees to have them dying more rapidly and make ways for new real estate programs.
They are now grand plans to even turn Dalat into a financial and agrobusiness town with one million inhabitants in the long term.
Cleanliness management, garbage collection, proper pavements, traffic lights at crossroads, proper street lighting, these are some of the issues that Dalat now faces. It is sad to realize the lack of awareness for a city with so much tourism assets which makes it not only unique in its identity but also could serve as a model of sustainable tourism development.
Other cities in Asia already realized that urban development and tourism growth need to be kept in control to reach a balance in the quality of the destination. They are already some good examples in ASEAN – Luang Prabang, Danang, Hue, Lampang in Thailand- have succeeded to make their city enjoyable to all by having a sustainable destination management. Why is Dalat not part of that trend?