Tourism boom threat­ens Viet­nam’s ‘Tonk­i­nese Alps’

China Daily (USA) - - TRAVEL - By JENNY VAUGHAN in Sapa, Viet­nam Agence France-Presse

At the top of Viet­nam’s Fan­si­pan Moun­tain, throngs of giddy tourists wield­ing selfie sticks jos­tle for a photo op on the once-re­mote peak in the Sapa re­gion, famed for its breath­tak­ing views across un­du­lat­ing rice ter­races.

Get­ting to the top tra­di­tion­ally takes a two-day trek, but these days most vis­i­tors opt for a 20-minute ride by ca­ble car in­stead — the lat­est flashy tourist at­trac­tion to heighten con­cerns over rapid devel­op­ment de­stroy­ing Sapa’s nat­u­ral beauty.

Known­bysomeas theTonk­i­nese Alps, the for­mer French out­post has seen a tourism boom in re­cent years with a new high­way from the cap­i­tal and ho­tels pop­ping up at break­neck pace.

“If more and more build­ing (hap­pens), thenone­daywe will lose Sapa, we won’t have any more moun­tain,” says guide GiangThiLang, from the Black Hmong eth­nic group.

Viet­nam’s tourism in­dus­try has taken off in re­cent years, es­pe­cially among do­mes­tic vis­i­tors with grow­ing ap­petites and bud­gets for travel.

The coun­try has also be­come a draw­for for­eign vis­i­tors turn­ing their backs on bet­ter-known South­east Asian des­ti­na­tions, such as Thai­land’s Chi­ang Mai, seek­ing in­stead a road less trav­eled.

But some lament the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of Viet­namese treasures, with re­ports of lo­cals com­plain­ing about multi-course meals served in Ha Long Bay’s famous caves, or trash-strewn beaches in the re­sort town of Phu Quoc.

In Sapa town, where heaps of rub­ble mark ho­tel sites un­der con­struc­tion, the num­ber of rooms has surged from 2,500 in 2010 to 4,000 last year, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures.

Vis­i­tor num­bers have snow­balled too, reach­ing around 700,000 last year, and rev­enues have more than tripled since 2010 to $50 mil­lion.

Part of that growth is thanks to the ca­ble car— the long­est of its kind in the world ac­cord­ing to op­er­a­tors — which opened in Fe­bru­ary with the ca­pac­ity to ferry 2,000 peo­ple to the top of the moun­tain daily.

“It’s good for Sapa when they can at­tract more tourists ... and we have a big num­ber of the lo­cal peo­ple that can find jobs,” says Nguyen Van Manh, deputy di­rec­tor of Sapa’s Tourist In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter, adding that the sec­tor pro­vided em­ploy­ment to thou­sands.

But some lo­cals tell a dif­fer­ent story.

“Be­fore the ca­ble car, there were more porters from the vil­lage with reg­u­lar work,” says Hmong trekking guide Ma A Tro from Fan­si­pan’s sum­mit, where he had just led a two-day trip.

“Nowwith­the ca­ble car there, vil­lage res­i­dents no longer have jobs, mostly be­com­ing free­lance con­struc­tion work­ers.”

Some tourists also say Sapa is los­ing its ap­peal, with Fan­si­pan’s pic­turesque sum­mit re­placed by con­crete steps, sou­venir shops and still-un­der­tem­ples.

“I imag­ined I would come to the top and it would be re­ally nat­u­ral, but it’s de­vel­oped here, so for me it’s a bit dis­ap­point­ing,” says trekker Duong HoangMinh, who hiked to the top of the 3,143-me­ter peak.

Even so, he de­cided to take the ca­ble car down and agreed that­morepeo­ple can en­joy the moun­tain be­cause of it.

“For other peo­ple I think it’s bet­ter be­cause it’s safer for them,” says the 23-year-old teacher, his white sweat­pants slicked with fresh mud.

Most tourism op­er­a­tors agree the boom has brought much-needed devel­op­ment — roads, schools and clin­ics, for ex­am­ple — to a re­gion where the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion be­long to one of Viet­nam’s 53 eth­nic mi­nori­ties, who have tra­di­tion­ally lagged be­hind the rest of the coun­try.

But with­out sus­tain­able growth Sapa risks “shoot­ing it­self in the foot”, says Hu­bert de Mu­rard, man­ager of the Topas Ecolodge about 18 kilo­me­ters from Sapa town.

The lodge, with its 25 white gran­ite bun­ga­lows over­look­ing a rice ter­raced val­ley, em­ploys mostly lo­cals, was built us­ing ma­te­ri­als found nearby and was de­signed to blend in with the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment — a busi­ness model de Mu­rard says he’d like to see new­com­ers adopt.

He wor­ries that some in­vest­ments have been short­sighted, aimed at max­i­miz­ing the num­ber of vis­i­tors.

“We need to be a bit more care­ful to avoid the mis­take of mass tourism in Sapa,” he says as the sun sets over the yawn­ing val­ley be­hind him.

PHO­TOS BY HOANG DINH NAM / AFP

Left: A tourist looks at moun­tains from a cof­fee shop in the north­ern Sapa tourist town. Right: For­eign tourists walk in a street of the Sapa town. Known by some as the Tonk­i­nese Alps, the for­mer French out­post has seen a tourism boom in re­cent years with a new high­way from the cap­i­tal and ho­tels pop­ping up at break­neck pace.

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