“The tourism sector has been a major factor in job creation, economic development and poverty alleviation in Vietnam, leaving no doubt that tourism has played a crucial role in our country’s overall socio-economic development,” said Vice-President Nguyen Thi Doan of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam at The World Travel & Tourism Council’s Global Leaders for Campaign on 20 April 2012 in Hanoi (WTO, 2012). It is the general perception that tourism brings many benefits for Vietnam. However, due to arbitrary and disruptive policy decisions from the government at macroeconomic level (BMI Research, 2015), as well as limited national coordination and poor destination management , Vietnam’s natural tourism assets is vulnerable to loss of value.
Since the late 1980s, sustainability has more and more become one of the leading philosophies for practitioners, entrepreneurs and academics in tourism (Butler, 1999; Mowforth & Munt, 2015). Despite various critical views on tourism sustainability, it is agreed to a large degree that the key to managing the negative impacts related to tourism is sustainability. Sustainability can be obtained by cohesive tourism planning and implementation and management of these plans by all stakeholders . This study focuses on inbound tour operator (ITO) in Vietnam; the main stakeholder in the tourism value chain in Vietnam. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is an approach for businesses to achieve sustainability (Hawkins, 1982; Reich, 1998; Carroll, 1999). It is defined as the “active and voluntary contribution of an enterprise to environmental, social, and economic improvement”. For ITOs CSR is a trendy concept . However, no study had been done focusing on CSR perception and practices by ITOs in Vietnam. There are over 1.500 formal ITOs in Vietnam. Together they are responsible for the majority of international arrivals. ITOs also play a key role in tourism supply chains. Their operational management has a clear influence on many subjects, from products to customers.
The goal of the present research was:
To analyse and compare how CSR is perceived and the reality of its practices by ITOs in Vietnam, with a focus on the assessment of business’s readiness, benefits and barriers in practicing CSR, to evaluate the proposition of applying the Travelife sustainability certification programme for advancing CSR practices and engaging more participation from ITOs in Vietnam.
A mixed method approach, combining qualitative and quantitative data, was used. Various online sources, such as books, academic articles, news, annual reports, and master plans were reviewed to determine the research goal and questions. The research was partly based on an auto-ethnographic method. Hereby, the researcher’s own experience are seen as a topic of investigation in its own right . Four years of sustainability and CSR working experiences of the researcher were used as data for this research. Finally, interviews with 10 governmental officers and a survey – in which 100 ITO participated – were used to collect primary data for this research.
Findings and discussion
Sustainability terms are ambiguously used. The research showed that CSR is still an ambiguous concept for many practitioners. This resulted in inconsistent use of terms in official or casual communication, in master plans, as well as in media representations. Sustainable tourism, green tourism, responsible tourism, and CSR have been used without clear clarifications of concept and applications. Terminology is important, as ITOs even considered the term “responsible tourism/travel” to be offensive. Vietnamese ITO do not want to call their operations responsible because that implies, in their perception, that they were not responsible before. This interpretation leads to unwillingness and demotivation to engage in sustainable development, making it a real barrier.
Limited national coordination. Another barrier to implement CSR, according to the ITOs, is the government’s weaknesses in planning and implementing sustainable/responsible development. Unclear goal and roles and uncoordinated actions plans are the evidence to support such an argument. There is a wide communication gap between policy imposers and implementers, which makes it difficult to work towards a shared vision. The findings showed, on the one hand, that the private sector seems to have lost their trust in the government’s planning and monitoring. On the other hand, it also makes clear the adversity that the government’s endeavours and projects face towards promoting sustainable/responsible tourism in Vietnam. ITOs seem unable to objectively evaluate the government’s performance and are prejudiced in blaming the government for poor management. The ITOs expect the government to be active and leading, while being passive in reaching out for information themselves. Surely, ITOs faced limited national coordination as one of their challenges in exercising CSR. But it is worth noting that their frigid attitude towards national sustainable development objectives widens the gaps in public-private partnerships.
ITOs “ego-ing” rather than “eco-ing” responsible tourism practices. Not only does this study call into question the validity of ITO’s reports on CSR practices, it also points out the need to be aware of how contexts impact a company’s “ego” more than “eco”, as Brian Wheeller (1993) ironically addressed in his research about sustainability and businesses. Following up on this, in the present study the same group of respondents was interviewed twice, once anonymous and once with an identifiable respondent. The data from the two survey was drastically different. The anonymous survey showed that ITOs did not do many of the things they claimed to be doing in the survey with identifiable respondents. This leads to a general statement, not meant to stereotype, that the higher the “ego”, the bigger the gap between oral commitment and actual actions. In this sense, “eco” is misused for short-term social recognition.
This tendency is influenced by the lack of an accreditation system. This demotivated ITOs from formal CSR practices, as they are unsure of how to benchmark their profit, efficiency pursuits and social responsibility. In addition, there was no guidance and support from the government and external organizations. This added up the passiveness in making positive changes towards sustainability. The tendency of being untruthful is encouraged by the widespread trend of responsible tourism. This study suggests that a company’s target market, the domestic context of regulations, and worldwide trend are the factors that drive a company’s “ego” towards being “eco” or sounding “eco”. Lack of systemic thinking and implementation. ITOs acknowledge the power they have to encourage the tourism industry to move towards sustainable development. This does not mean, however, that they use this power. ITO’s CSR practices were found to be scattered, unorganised and more importantly unmonitored. Related to this, ITOs did not regard profit increases and cost reductions as benefits of CSR, indirectly associating CSR with high(er) costs of time and capital. This is contradictory to evidence given throughout the literature review about the economical benefits of CSR for enterprises.
Travelife certification program as an initiative for cross-sector collaboration. Sustainable tourism certification can be used to measure and monitor the sustainable management of tourism companies or destinations. For developing countries, certification may be a good tool to promote better management of tourism stakeholders, and the environmental and socio-economic impacts of tourism, and to help attract high-end, environmentally-conscious tourists. Travelife is the certificate that is most recognised by the industry, locally and internationally, and by ITOs. Different from other eco-labels, Travelife is a dedicated sustainability auditing system for tour companies and travel agencies. Travelife recognizes that what Vietnam needs is to ease ITOs into the implementing of sustainable / responsible development, not another complication. Travelife could act as a mirror for tour companies to reflect on their own position and capacity, expectations and objectives, their company’s value system before they engage in activities to make their operations more sustainable.
The study is important because it provides new insights into the comprehension and implementation (or lack thereof) of CSR by ITOs in Vietnam. ITOs recognised the urgent need of Vietnam’s tourism for sustainability and their position in the stakeholder network to support government’s strategy, to influence clients and partners. However, their practices in CSR turned out to be informal, unorganised and sometimes fictitious. It identified the factors that leads to the contraction – which could be used for decision planning and making towards sustainability for tourism stakeholders of all types. To aid for tourism sustainable development in Vietnam, further research should look into the market demand for sustainable products in Vietnam, factors to build an effective communication mechanism for public and private sector in working towards share sustainability objectives, and factors that influence tour company’s “ego” in “ecoing” their operations.