Aus4EqualityGREAT storiesDigital transformation drives tourism business resilience

Digital transformation drives tourism business resilience

Sung Thi Lan calls herself a boss in the forest. The 38-year-old woman is the director of Muong Hoa Cooperative in Ta Van commune, Sapa town, Lao Cai province in northwest Vietnam. Her business centres on making and selling traditional ethnic textile products and providing experience services around brocade fabric. Lan and her business have helped create jobs for 20 people, including 18 ethnic minority women locally.

Sung Thi Lan (left) and her customers at her brocade textile showroom

But things haven’t come easy for her. Lan is the fifth of an 11-children family of Mong ethnic group community in Ta Van Day 2 village, Ta Van commune, a remote area of Vietnam. She had to work at a very young age to support her family and take care of her younger siblings. Not being allowed to go to school when she was small, Lan started her education aged 11 but had to drop school at the tenth grade. Yearning for education, she only returned to school when she was married with two children.

“I wanted to learn. I asked my husband and he let me go to weekend classes. My typical weekend routine went like this: On the way to school in the morning, I worked as a motorbike driver. I picked up customers to earn extra money for gas. At noon, I rode by motorbike back to the village to breastfeed my children. The money I made paid for gas, food and childcare. It was really, really tough.”

Still, Lan wanted to do more. She wanted to do something to help not only her and her family but also other ethnic minority women in her community to escape from poverty. That was why she founded Muong Hoa Cooperative with eight other women in her village in 2018. Capitalising on the international tourists visiting Ta Van for its scenic beauty and indigenous culture, the business was an opportunity for Lan and the women to improve their lives while preserving and promoting their traditional culture.

Lan is buying used traditional fabric to recycle and produce fashion products

“All of the local ethnic minority women know how to weave and make garments and clothes with their traditional techniques. With brocade fabric, my business could help many people. The traditional technique has been disappearing. If we don’t do anything about it, our younger generation will not keep that tradition.”

However, like many other tourism businesses, the cooperative was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The loss of international tourism in Sapa from 2020 put pressure on the Muong Hoa Cooperative business model. But in 2021, Lan had the opportunity to work with the Australian-funded GREAT program through a digital acceleration program. This program was designed to support agriculture and tourism businesses in Lao Cai and Son La to respond to the challenges posed by COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on businesses led by women and targeted at ethnic minority women.

Lan received the guidance and support from the technical experts in digital transformation from the most simple things such as taking photos, to preparing social media posts, taking care of existing customers through online platforms, managing customer data, and recording daily, weekly and monthly revenue. Through the program, Lan was also connected to networks of digital service providers and potential customers to ensure she can continue to get access to necessary technical support and the markets in a sustainable way. The cooperative’s once repetitive fanpage content has been transformed with diverse and targeted content, growing from only 300 ‘followers’ to nearly 2,000 ‘followers’, and 12,000 weekly interactions.

Lan’s colleagues are filming her activities to post on social media

Over time Muong Hoa’s client base has expanded, including both retail and wholesale customers. During the 10 weeks of the digital acceleration program, the weekly revenue of the cooperative surpassed VND 20 million, having been just VND 4.5 million before the course. After finishing the course, Lan continues to apply the knowledge learned to maintain and strengthen the cooperative’s online sales channels. As of February 2023, the average monthly revenue of Muong Hoa is about VND 55 million for brocade business and beeswax painting experience services for tourists, and  reached over VND 70 million per month in the peak season.

Lan has expanded her business to include beeswax painting experience service

“From having little knowledge and experience of using online tools, now I use social media frequently to promote our work and attract customers. I also share with linked members of the cooperative how to use online tools to improve the business performance.”

Lan’s continuous efforts have helped empower other Mong women to participate in tourism activities, generate their own income, and to have greater decision-making in their families and communities.

“The cooperative created jobs not just for me, but for many other members as well. Especially during COVID-19, I still have a job that helps me have better income,” Vang Thi May, a Dao woman in Ta Van, Sapa said.

The slow recovery of tourism continues to present new challenges for the cooperative, yet Lan is always full of energy and dedication to lead the cooperative to develop sustainably.

“I always remind myself to try harder and be persistent. If I give up easily, I won’t be where I am today.”

(Reference: CNA Correspondent, 2022, Weaving hope, reportage)