Vietnam's Phu Quoc Island Builds a Big Future
PHOTO: An iced coffee awaits you at Phu Quoc’s La Veranda Resort. (Courtesy of La Veranda Resort)
Move over Bali, Hainan, Koh Samui and Phuket, here comes Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Island as a competitor in the Southeast Asian race for the top resort island paradise. In a region where a surging prosperity and a bevy of low-cost carriers are driving the need for short break beach holidays, the competition is fierce.
The lifting of Vietnamese visa requirements for stays of up to 30 days puts the island squarely in the race for ASEAN travelers even as it races to bring its infrastructure up to date. In January, the government gave the island the go ahead to build Vietnam’s seventh casino, this one big enough to hold up to 400 tables and 2,000 slot machines. All of this development is expected to balloon the island’s population from about 100,000 a few years ago, to an expected 500,000 in the near future.
There was a time, between 1967 and 1973, when the last place you’d ever want to find yourself was on Phu Quoc Island is its notoriously Hellish prison originally built by France, famous for torture and Tiger Cages, during the Vietnam War. Today, that prison serves as a highly regarded museum experience to remind visitors of the country’s ferocious history.
About 10 years ago, Vietnam’s former Prime Minister Phan Van Khai signed off on plans to create a major resort on the 224-square-mile island and making it into an economic and eco-tourism hub by 2030, a bit like the Chinese island of Hainan. Action in southern Vietnam tends to move faster than ideas and their lugubrious plans.
Phu Quoc, the largest island in Vietnam, is surrounded by 26 smaller islands in the Gulf of Thailand, and lies about 30 miles from the Vietnamese mainland (an hour’s flight from Ho Chi Minh) and about seven miles from Cambodia. While the fact that most of the island is National Park should appeal to the eco-tourism market, the development pressure seems voracious enough to threaten the park.
“It began as a backpacker’s destination,” said Michael Healy, the general manager of Khiri Travel USA. “When the government gave it special economic zone status and liberalized the visa requirements it began taking off.” Khiri, which knows Southeast Asian travel inside out, lists these Phu Quoc hotels as its preferred choices: The Shells Resort and Spa; The Mango Bay Resort; Long Beach Resort; and La Veranda Resort.
“As of now, it doesn't have a lot of very high-end hotels to support luxury travel but it’s perfect for those in the middle. Millennials who are now making enough money to have travel agents and tour operators plan their trips and tend to be more adventurous and socially conscious about visiting places known predominately for ecotourism.
“With the new, much larger airport that was built, the Vietnam government has made a commitment to infrastructure on the island. Along with this came new hotels, better roads, more jobs and more money flowing into the local economy.”
In 2012, the new Phu Quoc International Airport opened at a cost of $970 million. Its runway can handle Airbus A350s as well as Boeing 777s and 747-400s. The airport reportedly has a capacity of 2.5 million passengers per year. Phu Quoc Island received some 600,000 tourists last year, 55 percent of them foreigners, a year-on-year rise of about 37 percent. The rapid rise of Phu Quoc is largely driven by intra-ASEAN traffic and one of the world’s most prolific low-cost carrier markets. In 2014, Vietnam received about 650,000 U.S. visitors altogether. When fully completed, the Vietnamese anticipate an annual visitation to the island of some 2 to 3 million per year.
Got a client in Southeast Asia who wants a taste of Vietnam, but doesn’t want to get involved in the country’s onerous visa process? Phu Quoc Island allows for visa free visitation.
The island’s growing list of hotels already includes the 234-room Novotel Phu Quoc Resort, the 250-room Holiday Inn Resort Phu Quoc Duong Dong Beach and the first luxury level resort, the Salinda Resort and Spa, which opened in February on Duong Dong on Long Beach with 121 rooms and villas. The four-star 143-room resort will be Centara’s second property on Phu Quoc Island when it opens later this year. The Thailand-based company also manages the Chen Sea Resort and Spa Phu Quoc.
The 400-room Novotel Phu Quoc Resort will open at year’s end as part of the Sonasea Villas & Resorts complex. Premier brands Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott are set to open two complexes in the south of the island next year. InterContinental is partnering with the BIM Group to build a mixed development with nearly 500 rooms, apartments, and villas.
Vingroup, a large Vietnamese real estate developer, is a huge player on the island. It opened the Vinpearl Resort Phu Quoc complex last year with 606 rooms, 33 villas and a 27-hole golf course. This August they’ll open the Vinpearl Premium hotel with 231 villas as well as a 150-bed hospital this summer. Vingroup is also building the $75 million Phu Quoc passenger seaport and turning the former airport into a shopping center. The seaport is scheduled for a 2017 completion and will be capable of receiving ships of up to 6,000 passengers.
For most Americans, a journey to Vietnam follows a well beaten south/north itinerary from Ho Chi Minh City to Hue, Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong Bay. Most American travelers go there for a rich cultural and natural immersion. “Most U.S. visitors to Vietnam will do some beach time, usually in Nha Trang or Hoi An, because they’re on that north/south axis,” said Healy. “Phu Quoc will appeal to the Millennials who are just coming into money, but not enough money yet, to do the sort of Vietnamese luxury that they would find at the Six Senses Resort on Con Dao Island.”
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