Tourism and townsfolk – the trouble with Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam’s Quang Ninh province is not a shining example of eco-tourism, community based tourism or sustainable development, despite it being an extremely popular nature holiday destination. Ha Long Bay’s thousands of stunning limestone karsts, impressive biodiversity and prehistoric human history have ensured its status with UNESCO according to two different criteria – universal aesthetics and geological/geomorphological value. It has also been named one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

However, the circa 600 residents of the floating fishing village of Cua Van, located 30 km from the mainland, have not benefitted much from the area’s popularity with tourists. Locals depend instead on fish and shellfish farming. Unfortunately, the pollution from tourists’ boats, together with the village’s own household waste, is killing their livestock. Both the villagers and the local government know this, but there is as of yet no consensus on a solution.

Floating village, Ha Long Bay, pic: Andrea Schaffer (Flickr CC)

From the Guardian:

The heritage of Ha Long Bay is not just the landscape, it is also the people. The local authorities need to thoroughly consult with and seek agreement from the local communities on the resettlement issue and have a comprehensive community resettlement plan, especially for their sustainable livelihoods.

–Nguyen Kim Anh, project coordinator, United Nations Development Programme in Vietnam

Development has resulted in the loss of mangrove forests and game fishing has harmed endangered fish populations, particularly around coral reefs.

And it’s not just Cua Van village that’s in trouble. Tests have shown that water near the shoreline of the bay are contaminated with excessive amounts of oil, especially the ports of Nam Cau Trang and Ha Khanh. Just a small amount of oil can kill animal plankton, devastating the food chain. Major contributors are the tourist boats and cargo ships which routinely and illegally dump waste water and oil into the bay.

Read more from VietNamNet/VNS.

Help from Europe?

According to TTR Weekly, in order to help Vietnam develop sustainable tourism in Ha Long Bay, the Environmentally and Socially Responsible Tourism Capacity Development Programme (ESRT), a project funded by the European Union, is assigning Vietnamese and international experts to come up with a plan for tourism development in Quang Ninh province.

Who knows what plans the EU-funded project will come up with and if they will ultimately benefit the Bay’s environment. But in terms of anthropology, archeology, geology and ecology (as well as probably a few other -ologies I haven’t thought of) Ha Long Bay is definitely worth protecting, tourism or no.

Imagine thousands of steep, soaring limestone islands peaked with tropical greenery. Now imagine that some of these islands are hollow with spectacular caves inside.

Thien Cung cave, pic: Erik A. Drabløs (Wikimedia Commons)

From IOL Travel:

I was careful not to be overly hypnotised by Halong Bay’s picturesque beauty, because I also wanted to discover the mystic splendour that lies in the caves below. Above the roofs of the caves are sand dunes or sea waves. Their walls are like giant curtains ceaselessly flapping in the wind.

If you’re into human history and prehistory, Halong Bay has been home to Homo sapiens for tens of thousands of years. Artifacts such as tools of the ancient cultures of Soi Nhụ (16,000-5000 BC) and Cái Bèo (5000-3000 BC) provide evidence of Vietnam’s long history.

Ha Long’s unique ecology is far from last on the list of things that are special about the area. Home to both a tropical evergreen rainforest ecosystem and a coastal marine ecosystem, the local biodiversity includes monkeys, antelopes, reptiles, amphibians, 40 kinds of birds, 200 species of fish, 450 species of molluscs, and an impressive variety of flora. There are 477 kinds of magnolia alone.

Hopefully Ha Long Bay will not become a casualty of the very things that make it attractive to both visitors and locals alike.

Pic: Saigon Tai Tai (Flickr CC)