Tourism is booming in formerly reclusive Vietnam, according to new statistics. Relaxed visa requirements, special promotions and a rising international profile have helped boost foreign visitor numbers by 27 per cent compared with last year, said the Vietnam National Administration for Tourism. Traveller Alex Stangke of Germany, visiting Hanoi last week, said he and his wife decided on a trip to Vietnam after several friends praised the country's abundant natural scenery. 'Its reputation as a place to visit is quite good,' Mr Stangke said. 'It's known to still be pure Asia.' The communist country recorded a meagre 181,000 tourist visits in 1990, four years after launching its reform programme. Ten times that number, 1.8 million, visited in the first eight months of this year, the latest statistics show. This year's surge is attributed in part to Vietnam's recent scrapping of tourist-visa requirements for visitors from several Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea. The government is also organising regular tourism-promotion events, such as this year's anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu colonial war victory in 1953. Numbers last year were also unusually low because of the Sars scare. 'We had to close down for a month last year,' said the proprietor of a tourist shop in Hanoi. 'Now we're very busy again.' The new numbers show China is the source of nearly one-third of all visitors. The US, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea are the other top-five source nations. The Vietnamese government is planning numerous tourism-boosting projects in hopes of reaching its target of six million foreign visits by 2010. One is to open its first promotion offices overseas, in Japan and France, though it is not known when. Despite the fast-growing numbers, however, Vietnam's tourism industry - which accounts for about 3 per cent of gross domestic product - remains a relatively small player, even by Southeast Asian standards. Thailand and Malaysia attract more than 10 million visitors each per year. Vietnamese officials have said that the country's tourism sector lags about 20 years behind some of its neighbours. Infrastructure and services are underdeveloped, scams are common, and Vietnam still lacks an unaffiliated tourism information centre.