Birding tourism in Vietnam: Still a niche market

Richard Craik, originally from Chester, an historic city close to Liverpool in north-west England, has spent the last 17 years living in Vietnam. On the crowded city streets of Ho Chi Minh City, he is just another foreigner living and working there. But among Vietnamese, foreign birdwatchers and conservationists, Richard and his company’s name, Vietnam Birding, are familiar.In 1992, Richard arrived in Vietnam, where he has been working in the tourism industry ever since. He used to work for several well-known travel companies and most recently, as the director of marketing for Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand for Exotissimo Travel Group, one of the region’s leading tour operators. For the past two years, he has been running a tour company called Vietnam Birding, the first birding tour operator in Vietnam with special expertise in arranging birdwatching tours as well as combined birding and cultural tours for clients from overseas. Their main destination is, as the company name suggests, Vietnam, but they can also arrange tours to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. ThienNhien.Net’s editor Do Hai Linh had a talk with Richard recently.

– Are you happy with your current business?

Richard: Yes, I am very happy with the way Vietnam Birding has taken off especially considering I have done very little in the way of marketing so far. Future plans include expanding birding tours to Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar and offering more tours combining birding with cultural touring.

– Why is it Vietnam Birding, not Vietnam Wildlife Watching or something else?

Richard and Tom Gullick, the top birder in the world. Tom Gullick has seen more birds than anybody else – nearly 9,000 species in all. He was one of the first clients of Vietnam Birding (Photo: Richard Craik)

Richard and Tom Gullick, the top birder in the world. Tom Gullick has seen more birds than anybody else – nearly 9,000 species in all. He was one of the first clients of Vietnam Birding (Photo: Richard Craik)

Richard: That’s a good question. Well, I guess it could have easily been Vietnam Wildlife Watching or something similar and in fact that may have made more sense as it broadens the scope of the activities you can arrange. However, when compared to other Asian destinations, Thailand, Malaysia, India or Sri Lanka for example, Vietnam does not have much to offer in the way of mammal or other wildlife watching. When it comes to birds though, Vietnam has the attraction of twelve endemic species that are not found anywhere else on earth as well as many regional endemics and very distinctive subspecies of birds. This makes Vietnam an enticing destination for the experienced world birder.

– The economic recession seems not to make much impacts on Vietnam Birding?

Richard: Thankfully the current financial crisis has had little effect on the company so far. Birding tourism is very much a niche market and the people who take birding tours have very specific reasons for visiting a particular destination, i.e. to see the birds that are special to that destination or region, and this kind of travel therefore tends to be less price sensitive than some other types of tourism.

“All our birding tours are tailor-made to meet our client’s needs. Vietnam Birding’s clients are usually married couples or small groups of friends with an interest in birding and are often retired. The majority of our clients are from the UK and the United States, where birdwatching is a hugely popular pastime. We have also had clients from Scandinavia, Australia, Canada and Singapore,” said Richard.

– Terminating nearly 15 years working for well-known regional tour operators then opening a completely new company in Vietnam in 2007. It seems that you have good preparations and a careful consideration?

Richard: Yes, it was not an easy decision to take, giving up a secure management position with one of the leading travel companies in the region but I had put a lot of thought into it and I felt the time was right for a change. Every now and then it’s good to live dangerously and take a gamble, try something new, just as I did seventeen years ago when I left England to move to Vietnam.

– Do you feel that your love for nature is expanded after each tour? How does this happen?
Richard: I don’t think I would exactly say that my love for nature increases after each tour as my love for nature never diminishes but it is always very exciting to head off on a new tour and exchange my desk and computer for the forest and binoculars. However what I do notice with each tour is that very few of the natural areas in Vietnam I have been visiting for birdwatching during the past 15 years have improved and they have nearly always deteriorated in some way be it logging, conversion to agriculture, quarrying, collection of forest products, hunting and trapping of birds.

– Have you ever discovered a new species or interesting things about bird ecology that yet recorded or recognized by scientists?

Richard with his spotting scope (Photo: Richard Craik)

Richard with his spotting scope (Photo: Richard Craik)

Richard: To discover a species of bird that is completely new to science is the dream of every birder. Although the chances of this are extremely slim, amazingly three new bird species were discovered in Vietnam in just three years between 1996 and 1999 by ornithologist and country representative of Birdlife in Indochina, Jonathan Eames. This is a truly remarkable achievement. Who knows what other ornithological discoveries remain to make in the twenty-first century! The nearest I have come was finding a bird species that hadn’t previously been recorded in Vietnam earlier this year on Mount Fansipan, although as it does occur just over the border in northern Laos and southern

China this was not really an unexpected discovery. Apart from this I have occasionally found a species of bird in an area of Vietnam where it has not been seen before but I still live in hope of finding that new species some day!
– How do you find yourself now, a conservationist or a businessman?

Richard: I would like to think I am part-conservationist and part-businessman. By encouraging birding tourism I hope to be able to help preserve some of the natural areas we visit for the benefit of both the birds and the people who live there. And what can be better than making a living from doing what you enjoy most!

– Coming back to the year 1992. Why did you choose Vietnam/Indochina as the destination?

Richard: I had left the UK which was deep in recession 12 months earlier after selling my restaurant business to travel around the world for a year while looking for new opportunities. I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City early in 1992 and immediately fell in love with the low-rise city of ochre-washed buildings, tree-lined streets and friendly smiling faces. In contrast to the pessimism in Europe at the time there was a feeling of great optimism in Vietnam as the country began to open up to foreign tourism and investment. I had also met Lan, who is now my wife, in the first few months after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, which may also have had some influence on why I decided to stay in Vietnam!

Currently, Richard lives in Ho Chi Minh City with his wife Lan and daughter Carmen and a large collection of bird books. Away from birds he enjoys swimming and playing tennis and following the ups and downs of English Premier football team Everton. (Photo: Richard Craik)

Currently, Richard lives in Ho Chi Minh City with his wife Lan and daughter Carmen and a large collection of bird books. Away from birds he enjoys swimming and playing tennis and following the ups and downs of English Premier football team Everton. (Photo: Richard Craik)

– I suppose that you have some experience to share with eco-tour operators in Vietnam? What should we do to improve eco-tourism in Vietnam?

Richard: The first thing we can do to improve eco-tourism in Vietnam is to understand exactly what eco-tourism is. The majority of tour operators who offer ecotourism tours and products in Vietnam (and many other countries) have no idea what the term “eco-tourism” really means. As defined by the Eco-tourism Society, “eco-tourism is responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people”. There are currently very few “eco-tourism” products in Vietnam that could claim this.

– Thank you very much!

One of many testimonials on Vietnam Birding website: “”Thanks again for all of your help and kindness. It helped make my Vietnam experience very pleasant and frustration-free. There will always be fond memories. I will definitely send people your way if they need any help with a trip to Vietnam.” – Pete Loncar, Montrose, CO, USA


This interview was published on PanNature’s environmental news website at: http://www.thiennhien.net/news/161/ARTICLE/8766/2009-06-05.html

Vietnam Birding Website: http://www.vietnambirding.com/

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