After weeks of wide-scale promotions for the upcoming Lunar New Year Tet holiday, bookings have suffered a marked decline from last year with travel companies noting a poor response from customers, according to a report in Tuoi tre (The Youth) newpaper.

Travel companies are "sitting on the fire", the paper said, adding that many intend to give back air tickets at a loss. Big travel companies such as Saigontourist, Vietravel, Ben Thanh and Fiditour have also reported having a lot of vacancies on inbound and outbound tours.

Travel companies began a strong push for Tet travel products last year, with a number of companies developing specialised tours. Tet is the longest and the most important annual festival in Vietnam, during which people rush from every corner of the country back home for family reunion.

At Ben Thanh Tourist, a tour to Thailand from January 1 to February 7, departing daily and priced from 10.365 million VND per person (including vouchers of Thai massage, lunch buffet, and other expenses), failed to reach the required 16 bookings for the 20 group package, according to a company representative.

This time last year, the tour was well on the way to closing bookings.

Tran Doan The Duy, deputy general manager of Vietravel, said the possibility of a demonstration in Bangkok on February 2 had deterred a number of customers.

Some had called to ask for updates and said they would make the decision later, he said.

Several travel companies have been unwilling to receive deposits or sign contracts with customers out of fear of paying a 200 percent pecuniary penalty for canceling tours.

The head of outbound travel at a different Ho Chi Minh City travel company said many of the company's tours had reached only 70 percent of required bookings, well short of bookings made in previous years, while Tran Thi Bao Thu, director of Marketing and Communications at Fiditour, said they were offering a 5-10 percent discount to attract customers to inbound tours.

"We will launch a fifth discount for booking online that will available in 24 hours and offer a discount between 500,000 to 5 million VND (21-210 USD)," Thu said.

While tour products continue to sell below targets, private travellers are also finding it difficult to book accommodation in locations such as Vung Tau, Phan Thiet, Ba Ria, and Phu Quoc.

Tran Quoc Viet, director of VN Travel, said rooms had been booked previously by travel companies who earn commissions on reselling rooms to travel companies.

Many travel companies have admitted that this has made it difficult to sell inbound tours to Phu Quoc and Nha Trang, and left them holding hundreds of unsold air tickets.

Tran Van Long, general director of Vietravel Company, said his company was struggling to find customers for around 300 air tickets to Phu Quoc for the Tet period.

"If we can't sell them in the next few days, we will absorb the loss of returning these tickets," Long said.

Tran The Dung, deputy director of The He Tre (Young Generation) travel company, said although travel companies were offering several promotions for inbound tours, outbound tour prices had been less competitive.

"High air fares are a big reason for customers avoiding inbound tours," she said.

Nguyen Thi Tuyet Mai, a representative of Ben Thanh Tourist agreed the number of outbound tourists had outnumbered inbound travellers also due to a lack of innovation in inbound tours.

Experts are predicting travel companies will ultimately dispose of air tickets and rooms at a low price before the upcoming Tet holiday.-VNA