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Case of Cu Chi – Vietnam

As Pine and Gilmore (1998) coin the concept of a new economic era: the “experience economy” when customers are looking for exceptional and unforgettable experiences, it is obvious that tourism, like many other industries, is incessantly getting involved in experience economy and must generate more experience products. Many countries throughout the world have targeted tourism as a driving-force for development, and Vietnam is not an exception. However, there is lack of academic research on the relationship of the experience economy and the tourism development in Vietnam. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to study the case of Cu Chi, where experience economy has changed a war-devastated area in Southern Vietnam into a popular tourist destination. Hence, the objective of this paper is twofold: to investigate the affect of experience economy on Cu Chi, and to identify the experience products of this destination. Based on the findings, some practical approaches for tourism sustainable development planning of Cu Chi are then proposed.

Introduction

In the ‘experience economy’, Pine And Gilmore (1998) reveal a new era of economy in which people are attracted by meaningful experiences and intangible things instead of tangibles like years before. This experience economy is growing very fast thanks to the great need of customers for affective memories, sensation and symbolism which combine to create a holistic and long-lasting personal experience. New marketing approaches also shift from product attributes and quality to experiences that dazzle customer’s senses, ‘engage them personally’, ‘touch their hearts’ and ‘stimulate their minds’ (e.g. Schmitt, 2003; Gentile, Spiller and Noci, 2007). Therefore, Pine and Gilmore (1998) suggest businesses or destinations should add extra value to their offerings in order to provide unforgettable, satisfactory experiences to their customers. If companies can create personal experiences to customers, they will have sustainable competitive advantage (McCole, 2004; Prahalad and Ramaswany, 2004; Shaw and Ivens, 2005). The experience economy also employs the concept of the “Creative Class”, which has been named by Richard Florida in his book – The Rise of the Creative Class (2002). The Creative Class are not restricted in any set plan, but they have freedom to perform a more flexible one. This distinction still makes up the core meaning of the experience economy: The industry grows by a flexibility dictated by the interests and curiosity of its customers.

Like other countries throughout the world, Vietnam has targeted tourism as the main industry for economy thriving. Across the country, many destinations was renovated and developed in order to attract international and domestic tourists. Cu Chi, a suburban district of Ho Chi Minh City in South Vietnam, which was well-known for fierce battles between Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communist) guerilla forces and U.S Army during the peak-period of Vietnam War (1961 – 1972), has become a popular sight-seeing. Cu Chi is a great example about how a ravaged area has been revitalized with strong elements of an experience based industry. Nevertheless, with the rapid growth of tourists coming to this district, it is necessary to apply proper planning for tourism sustainable development in Cu Chi.

The Four Dimensions of the Experience Economy and Tourism

Tourism industry has come into a new era of high competition and challenge to create distinguishing characteristics of tourist experiences (Perdue, 2002). This industry is an example of the growth of experience economy shown in earlier literatures (Cohen, 1979). What tourists get is experiences characterized by unique, emotionally charged and of high personal value (McIntosh and Siggs, 2005). Sternberg (1997:954) further argued that “tourists are tourists because they want to compensate for their secular, disenchanted mundane lives through a temporary exposure to the other – to the adventurous, foreign, ancient, or spectacular. Tourism establishments make it their business to shape, package and sell such experiences”. Many literatures have tried to identify tourist experiences from a number of perspectives (Jackson, White and Schmierer, 1996; Prentice, Witt and Hamer, 1998; Li, 2000). The personal and affective dimensions of tourists’ experiences in natural and heritage environments have been revealed in many studies (Schanzel and McIntosh, 2000). Tourists’ experiences of high-risk adventure and leisure activities have also become the main topic of other researchers (e.g. Arnould and Price, 1993; Celci et al., 1993). These academic works have founded the significance and relation of understanding tourists’ experiences. There are four dimensions of experience which relate to tourism, which are:

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  • Education: Pine and Gilmore’s (1998) explored that customers are motivated to ‘learn something new’ because an education experience actively engages their mind and intrigues them. Consumers also take an important part in co-determining their experience. By getting an educational experience, consumers can improve their knowledge and skills. Within tourism context, the desire to self-educate is a key motivating factor to travel (Prentice, 2004).
  • Escapism: Tourism offers abundant chances for escapist experiences. Holidays are ways for “escape aids, problem solvers, suppliers of strength, energy, new lifeblood and happiness” (Krippendorf, 1987: 17). Tourists can get away from the daily routine of life by travelling (Uriely, 2005). Cohen (1979) also points out travelers are inspired to seek for a ‘self-centre’ elsewhere away from everyday activities. Therefore, they are in search for satisfying and authentic experiences (Turner, 1973).
  • Entertainment: Entertainment is considered as the basic and traditional form of experience, consumers get involved in entertainment passively. Pine and Gilmore (1998) note that companies are now ‘stages’ used to ‘delight and entertain patrons’. Many tourist destinations are well-known for the level, variety and quality of their offers because entertainment intrinsically remains a fundamental part of the tourism product (Hughes and Benn, 1995).
  • Esthetics: This dimension concerns how consumers interpret the physical environment around them. There are three aspects of physical environment categorized by Bitner (1992): ‘ambient conditions’; ‘spatial layout and functionality’; and ‘signs, symbols and artifacts’. In the literature of tourism and hospitality, Bonn et al., (2007) referred that the physical environment of tourist attractions is the key role in regulating visitors’ attitudes, future patronage intentions and readiness to recommend.

Experience production

Events, which are intentionally designed to bring meaningful experiences to the guests spending time there, are means of experience production (Boswijk, Thijssen, & Peelen, 2007). In the case of Cu Chi, living underground in the tiny tunnel network or having meals like guerillas, the value of the experience is the essential part. Experiences have gradually become the hottest commodity, and this phenomena takes place in the minds of individuals, not only for rich people, but in various form of consumption and behavior (Boswjik & Thijssen, 2007). Since the characteristics of experiences are personal, intangible and continuously ongoing, it is problematic for markets to satisfy those demands (O’Dell, 2005). There are also debates on in which conditions experiences can occur. Florida (2002:166) argues about the Creative Class lifestyle as “a passionate quest for experience” (2002: 166), they fill their lives up with intensive, high quality, multidimensional experiences. The Creative Class are keen on active rather than passive experiences, they prefer the consumption of experiences to traditional goods and services (Florida, 2002; George & Henthorne, 2007). Due to the appearance and growth of The Creative Class, experience production becomes the main concern of many tourist destinations all over the world. This paper relates to Cu Chi context and describes how experience is produced at this place as well as its influence on the larger settings.

Cu Chi in Vietnam War

The history of foundation

Cu Chi Tunnel is 70 km from Ho Chi Minh City in the Northwest where its earliest tunnels were established in 1948 at two villages Tan Phu Trung and Phuoc Vinh An. In the beginning, they were short and simple complexes for hiding documents, weapons, keeping Viet Cong officers operating in enemy rears. Subsequently, the tunnels were expanded to many neighborhood villages. From 1961 to 1965, the main structure of the tunnel called the “Spinal Tunnel” was finished in the area within five northern villages of Cu Chi District. Rooted from this “frame”, branch tunnels connected with the “Spinal Tunnel” and made them into intercommunicated tunnel systems. In order to facilitate the guerilla war, Cu Chi Tunnel was expanded rapidly to counter attack the invasion of Americans. In the peak period of Vietnam War (1966-1972), America Army performed various strategies by determination to eliminate the revolution forces of Cu Chi: 1. Using water to break down the whole network, 2.Deploying the “sewer-rat” army to attack the tunnel, 3. Utilizing mechanical vehicles to demolish the structure, 4.Using Becgie dogs to attack guerrilla forces, 5. Seeding grass to destroy terrain. They also deployed the best divisions (Division No. 1, “Red Eldest Brother”, Division 25 “Tropical Light” etc…) supported by tanks, armored cars, and artillery as well as air forces to “wipe out” the whole district.

However, the American suffered serious damages in Cu Chi and failed to achieve their goals to stop Viet Cong. The tunnel network proved its amazing vitality while its branches stretched to everywhere within area. By 1967, the whole system reached the total lengths over 200 km. Tunnel dredging became a movement of Cu Chi people at that time with the involvement of olds, young, women and men for fighting against America Army. More surprisingly, after the war, there are many documents exploring that Cu Chi people only use primitive equipments such as hoes and bamboo-plaited dustpans to build up a great “underground village” with hundreds of km of crossing tunnels in earth womb. The whole network was constantly improved under the top-secret circumstances; guerilla forces must carry and hide thousands of soil metric meters to other places. Many methods were applied such as pouring down to flooded bomb holes, embanking into ant hills, pouring to fields and plant above…. to clean the tracks that could lead to the assaults of America army on the tunnel. From the Cu Chi Tunnels, Viet Cong could operate large-scale and sudden counter-attack which became frequent threats to enemies during the war.

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Tunnels structures

The underground network of Cu Chi tunnel is a complex twisted in earth womb withmany long, short branches rooted from the “Spinal” tunnel and intercommunicated to each terrain. When being attacked, guerilla forces can escape through many outlets of branches leading to Saigon River. There are different layers of tunnels from 03 meter to 06 meter depth which can keep Viet Cong safe from cannons and weights of armored cars, the deepest parts can even stand for small bombs. The height and width of the Cu Chi tunnel is merely 50 cm, therefore, the common way for moving underground is creeping. Entrances and exits of the network are carefully camouflaged where some defense-points established to stop enemies or chemicals sprayed by enemies. For ventilation, air holes are set up to the ground under cover via many secret doors. A “deadly ground” was settled surrounding the tunnel network; it included antitank mines, traps, platforms for shooting helicopters in order to prevent enemies approaching closed. Between the tunnels, there are compartments for daily activities with storage of weapons, grains, foods, drinking water. People could cook secretly underground by Hoang Cam stoves which were designed for hiding smoke in soil. There are also subterranean medical stations, offices of leader, and meeting rooms for performing music and art.

Thanks to its undestroyable system, Cu Chi tunnels could stand until spring 1975, when the country was unified and Vietnam War came to an end.

Cu Chi as a tourist attraction

After Vietnam War, Cu Chi district is the most devastated area of Southern Vietnam with scattered community; the life quality of Cu Chi people is also much lower in comparison with that of its neighborhood regions. Since the renovation policies of Vietnam government in 1986, Cu Chi has been targeted as the main tourist attraction of Vietnam where unique goods offered to tourists: war experiences. It can be considered as product or service innovations of Cu Chi due to “changes directly observed by the customer and regarded as new; either in the sense of never seen before, or new to the particular enterprise or destination” (Hjalager, 2010:2).

The innovation of the whole area

Based on the war remnant of Cu Chi, since 1990 this area has been gradually renovated which is called Cu Chi Tunnels Historical Monument Area. In this process, the authorities have tried their best to keep original actualities in order to offers chances of visiting and researching to international and domestic tourists. The liberty area of Cu Chi, where was once called “iron land” of guerilla forces in war period, is reappeared while five staged-locations is reinstated to depict Special War and Local War of American Army. Underground, there are 09 tunnel stratum spaces making up the “motherland supernatural meditation” symbol.

To meet the needs of tourists coming to this destination, Cu Chi Tunnels Historical Monument Area has been constantly upgraded and it currently includes two subdivisions:

  1. Ben Duoc Tunnels Historical Monument Area: 75 km from Ho Chi Minh center within the total square of 89 hectares of Phu Hiep and Phu My Hung village. The main attractions of this area are:
    • Tunnel area for visiting includes 02 bases with 15 hectares
    • The Martyr Temple of 07 hectares
    • The Liberty Area rebuilt of 50 hectares
    • The National defense sport shooting-gallery of 03 hectares
  2. Ben Dinh Tunnels Monument Area: Within the total square of 06 hectares of Ben Dinh and Nhuan Duc Village deployed as follows:
    • Statement hall and operation area of 01 hectare
    • Sport ground, orchard and rest houses of 01 hectare
    • Base for sightseeing tunnels of 03 hectares
    • Rebuilding historical services of 01 hectare

“Combat villages” – a special form of tourism

The objective of the model of “Combat villages” is to produce real war experience for tourists. In combat villages, there are typical houses representing daily life in war. All houses are decorated exactly the same way in the past with shelters, traditional furniture such as bamboo table, stone mortar. Statues are designed to rebuild lively sceneries such as secret meeting of guerrillas, teachers giving lectures to children under war conditions etc. In some houses, there are actors and actresses playing activities such as milling flour, making alcohol or baking. Tourists can take part in these actions or stay at houses for lively experiences. The tour guides in guerilla clothes are in charge of interpreting the meaning, history and function of the whole system. After traveling on the ground, tourists continue to collect new experiences by getting in the tunnel. Inside the tunnel, tourists may be impressed on how Cu Chi guerrillas can lived underground for many years and most of travelers are keen on studying about unique ways for survival in severe conditions of war period.

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Surroundings the tunnel are plentiful material evidences such as armored tanks, bulldozers, helicopters, canons, bombs and so on collected from America Army. Tourists are embedded in the war experiences as well as having a chance to self-educate about the history of the war and the value of peace.

The shooting area offers excited experience to tourists where all kinds of guns used by Cu Chi guerillas in the past are presented. Tourists can try different types of weapon and if they can hit the target, they are awarded special local gifts, for instance, bandanna, broad-brimmed cap…

The destination also provides abundant tourist services: traditional-cuisine restaurants, accommodation, camping area, conference facilities, boat excursion on Saigon River, electric car services for sightseeing, souvenir shops with gifts made from remaining war scraps, such as cartridge, gun fragment, guerilla uniforms…The whole area is highly-commercialized, and with the number of approximately one million tourist arrivals in 2007, Cu Chi seems to succeed in attracting both international and domestic tourists when presenting such special experiences as Berridge (2007:14) argued: “At the root of this point is the idea that an event, for some stakeholders but not all, is an activity that is, at that point, meant to be unique and memorable”

Suggestions for sustainable tourism development planning in Cu Chi

There are obvious evidences showing this long time war-suffered district has been revitalized and rapidly developed thanks to tourism industry. Nevertheless, it is necessary for the management board to apply some practices for sustainable tourism development planning at the destination. The UN report: “Managing sustainable tourism development” (Commission, 2001: 50) has been referred for proposing the following guidelines:

  • The people of Cu Chi should take the main role in maintaining control over tourism development. At present, this tourist destination is under the management of Ho Chi Minh City Military Headquarters, which are state officials, while the local people get involved trivially in the development process of tourism. I believe that the experience economy can only flourish when there is establishment of functional and professional relationships at several levels in Cu Chi.
  • The benefits must be distributed broadly and equally as well as planning requires local community input. Staff, the community and the tourists need more than “Value for money”. As many researches have pointed out that the best investment for a sustainable lifestyle of local community is to set up a fair distribution of benefits. This principle is also true for the case of Cu Chi. By giving them better opportunities of employment, education and training, Cu Chi people can enhance their skills and better control over their own lives. From the tourist viewpoint, it is important to bring travelers closer into the local community as well as satisfy their expectations and provide a high quality tourist experience. Currently, there are indications of unsustainable development of Cu Chi, for instance, many local products sold to tourists are wild animals, this kind of goods must be prohibited and the eco-friendly ones should be encouraged. Also, while local businesses try to maximize their profit and satisfy the increase of tourists’ demand, the waste treatment system has still not been established in this area.
  • Marketing for sustainable tourism must be in harmony between the needs of the visitor, the place and the community. Experience economy basing on the tourism industry significantly depends on the choices and decisions of tourist entrepreneurs, the tourists and the authorities. Therefore, the objective of tourism marketing is to improve the process of conceiving and developing those specific tourism products, which better corresponding to different tourist categories’ needs (Muhcina, 2008). In this sense, Cu chi needs harmonious policies to promote tourism products and to satisfy the actual and future tourists’ needs, by using the natural environment elements in an equilibrated way. The surrounding region of Cu Chi with great landscape can be a solution for diversifying and offering various potential ecotourism products.

Conclusion

According to World Travel and Tourism Council in 2007, tourism industry is forecasted to generate double income within the next 15 years. Experience economy born by this industry can bring opportunities to developing countries in the process of development. In the case of Cu Chi, this destination has been surprisingly benefited by its war remnants as many people have said that they even can “sell a war”. The whole district has been revived and become a competitive destination with growing income and status. Nevertheless, there is a double-affect of this type of destination development. It offers new chances to the local community while simultaneously causing potential risks for the area, its people and resources. Hence, to achieve the objective of sustainable tourism development, Cu Chi must improve the quality and uniqueness of experiences providing for customers along with setting up a plan of development that takes local setting into consideration. This destination should not only stick to the experience of the past war but also needs to prepare better for the future. The forthcoming stage of tourism development in Cu Chi should be considered as a new opportunity, not merely challenges, as Jensen declared in his book-Dream Society (2007:24): “If you see the future as an obstacle, you are walking in the wrong direction”.

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Online references

  • Cu Chi Tunnel. Retrieved May 25th, 2010, available from http://www.cuchitunnel.org.vn
  • World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Retrieved May 25th, 2010, available from http://www.wttc.org


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