Tourism boom threat­ens Viet­nam’s ‘Tonk­i­nese Alps’

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

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. 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.

“If more and more build­ing (hap­pens), then one day we will lose Sapa, we won’t have any more moun­tain,” said guide Giang Thi Lang, 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 draw for for­eign vis­i­tors turn­ing their backs on bet­ter-known South­east Asian des­ti­na­tions such as Thai­land’s Chi­ang Mai, seek­ing in­stead a road less trav­elled.

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.

‘They didn’t lis­ten’

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,” said 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,” said Hmong trekking guide Ma A Tro from Fan­si­pan’s sum­mit, where he had just led a two-day trip. “Now with the ca­ble car there, vil­lage res­i­dents no longer have jobs, mostly be­com­ing free­lance con­struc­tion work­ers.” The gov­ern­ment ig­nored op­po­si­tion to the ca­ble car, he said, lament­ing that busi­ness has dwin­dled since its con­struc­tion with fewer peo­ple climb­ing the moun­tain. “We talked to them, but they didn’t lis­ten. The cen­tral gov­ern­ment came and said they had to do it, so they did it,” he added.


Some tourists also say Sapa is los­ing its ap­peal, with Fan­si­pan’s pic­turesque sum­mit re­placed by con­crete steps, sou­venir shops and still-un­der-con­struc­tion tem­ples. “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,” said trekker Duong Hoang Minh, who hiked to the top of the 3,143-me­tre (10,311-foot) peak. But still, he de­cided to take the ca­ble car down and agreed that more peo­ple can en­joy the moun­tain be­cause of it.

“For other peo­ple I think it’s bet­ter be­cause it’s safer for them,” said 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”, said Hu­bert de Mu­rard, man­ager of the Topas Ecolodge about 18 kilo­me­ters (11 miles) 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 said he’d like to see new­com­ers adopt. He wor­ries that some in­vest­ments have been short-sighted, aimed at max­i­miz­ing the num­ber of vis­i­tors. “For a nat­u­ral des­ti­na­tion like here, with a pre­served en­vi­ron­ment, this would not re­ally be good,” he told AFP as the sun set over the yawn­ing val­ley be­hind him. “We need to be a bit more care­ful to avoid the mis­take of mass tourism in Sapa.”

This pic­ture shows two Red Dao eth­nic women walk­ing past Topas Ecolodge on the out­skirts of north­ern Sapa tourist town. — AFP pho­tos

A young cou­ple re­lax­ing at Topas Ecolodge on the out­skirts of north­ern Sapa tourist town.

A ca­ble car pass­ing over rice ter­races and moun­tains be­tween the top of Fan­si­pan Moun­tain and the north­ern Sapa tourist town.

Lo­cal eth­nic mi­nor­ity women walk­ing along a street as they sell tourist sou­venirs.

Hmong hill­tribe women walk­ing along a street as they sell tourist sou­venirs in the north­ern Sapa tourist town.

Tourists dis­em­bark­ing from a ca­ble car at the sta­tion near the top of Fan­si­pan Moun­tain in the north­ern Sapa tourist town.

Hu­bert de Mu­rard, man­ager of Topas Ecolodge, speak­ing dur­ing an in­ter­view with AFP at his re­sort.

Peo­ple walk­ing in front of a church in the very heart of north­ern Sapa tourist town.

Tourists walk­ing up from a ca­ble car sta­tion to the top of Fan­si­pan Moun­tain in north­ern Sapa tourist town.

A tourist look­ing at moun­tains from a cof­fee shop in down­town of north­ern Sapa tourist town.

New ho­tels un­der con­struc­tion on the hill­side in north­ern Sapa tourist town.

A Dao eth­nic woman sell­ing tourist sou­venirs in front of a new ho­tel un­der con­struc­tion in the north­ern Sapa tourist town.

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