A passion for Community-based tourism

Founder and former CEO of Hanoi based Active Travel Asia Agency, with a passion, belief and determination to refresh tours around the Mekong river, Nguyen Ngoc Bich (also known as Bobby Nguyen), left everything behind in order to establish a community-based tourism project called Mekong Rustic.

What motivated you to abandon  your tourism agency in hanoi and establish Mekong Rustic – a chain of community-based accommodations in the Mekong Delta area?

Mekong Rustic is like my spiritual child, founded by my passion and love for Vietnamese tourim. In 2013, after listening to many complaints from clients and friends that tours in the Mekong Delta area were too simple and lacked creativity, coupled with the fact that the floating market Cai Be – one of the main attractions in the area – was seeing a gradual decline in visitor numbers, I decided to make a change by creating the things that I really want to see in the area.

Four years later, following discussions with my partners, I moved to the Mekong Delta area to implement my dream plan with only VND 5 million ($220) in my pocket. With a desire to create a responsible tourism cooperation operated by local people, I cooperated with some local families who shared my ambition and helped tham build and operate tourism services in Tan Phong Isle (Tien Giang Province). These were alson the very first steps for establishment of my later model, Mekong Rustic.

After nearly five years of building and developing this model, how do you evaluate its efficiency?

Many years ago, operating a private community-based tourism agency in Vietnam was a huge challenge, especially for pioneers like us. We had to face numerous ostacles. For example, when we first started to operate this model our revenue was nearly zero. We also had to change local people’s awareness of something new, build a brand, and so on, all without any financial support.

However, nearly three years since its official debut, Mekong Rustic is now developing and expanding its model to other places. In 2015, Mekong Rustic was just a homestay with five separated rooms in tien giang. Now there are three branches, including Mekong Rustic Cai Be (Tien Giang) with five homestays and 11 bungalows, Mekong Rustic Can Tho with 18 bungalows and Mekong Rustic Operation in Tram Chim National Park (Dong Thap), with dozens of households taking part in and sharing their local culture with tourists.

A few years ago, someone said that I had made a big mistake leaving Hanoi and moving to the Mekong Delta area. However, now Mekong Rustic welcomes many domestic and international visitors. In peak seasons, our accommodations are usually all fully booked. Mekong Rustic is not simply a tourism product of the Mekong Delta river area, it raises a dream about life and reserves local cultures for future generations.

With your experience as a pioneer in developing new community-based tours, do you have any comments about this new tourism form in Vietnam?

The model of community-based tourism I have pursued is flourishing in Vietnam with the participation of several units, including NGOs and the private sector.

This model is suitable for small and medium groups, who love experiencing local culture and joining locals' activities. If implemented well, it will be a key to sustainable tourism development and enhancing locals' awareness of the need for protection of the environment, ecosystem and local culture. In contrast, a badly implemented model will lead to a negative awareness of tourism development.

What are the pros and cons of developing community-based tourism in Vietnam?

Vietnam is well-known for various natural resources and untapped local cultures. The Vietnamese are friendly, especially those in Western areas. Besides, we have many ecological conservation areas, and the local authorities have also supported this model.

However, I have to admit that most Vietnamese are unfamiliar with the concept of community-based tourism, and some of them lack an understanding of this model. Not everyone is familiar with serving tourists, and there are differences between the expectations of tourists and those of local people, such as clean toilets or a tidy kitchen. If these issues can be addressed, community-based accommodations are likely to welcome more international tourists.

In your opinion, what makes community-based tours in Vietnam stand out from other forms of tourism?

I believe that spreading local cultural values through activities in daily life activities makes community-based tourism different from other tourism forms in Vietnam.

Whenever tourists come, they are always welcomed by hosts' smiles. The hosts will serve them with water and fruit picked from their gardens.

Tourists can visit and take part in daily life activities with the locals such as draining ditches for fish, cooking, baking, and picking fruits. That's what tourists want to see, not the inauthentic things set up for the purpose of tourism. Tourists will be more interested in these cultural values and activities if we provide them with a better standard of service.

Do you have any plan for expanding this model in other locations in Vietnam?

We aim for Mekong Rustic to have 8-10 branches all over Vietnam. I also hope to expand this model in Laos and Cambodia if it continues to run well.

What criteria do you use in order to choose your partners and localities for your model?

Some partners have offered to create similar models in other localities, but I only choose the areas which are lacking in tourism creativity such as northwestern areas, central areas and some other places in the Mekong Delta region. For partners, I wish to cooperate with locals who are open and have the same passion and desire to develop community-based tourism with me. I really love this job. I always think that when we have passion and can spread this passion to others, the model wil soon expand.

(Hoang Oanh - Timeout)