Vietnam’s last chance: Sustainable tourism
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Vietnam’s last chance: Sustainable tourism

DESPITE being a cautionary tale dating back to the Industrial Revolution, the economy-versus-ecology dilemma continues to plague many developing countries to this day. Vietnam is no exception, with Hanoi boldly exploiting its natural resources in its quest to achieve economic growth. But faced with worsening pollution levels, the government in Hanoi is now in dire need to find a national strategy that threads the needle between environmental protection and socio-economic development.

Thirty years after the Vietnamese Communist Party enacted “doi moi,” which opened the former state-controlled and centralised economy to the global market, the country’s economic indicators have dramatically improved. Per capita GDP rose from US$437.13 in 1986 to US$2,185.69 in 2016, according to data from the World Bank. Poverty rates have also significantly spiralled down, from 60 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2016.  But the Vietnamese are paying for these economic strides with their natural resources, and the country’s vast coastlines are taking the brunt of the impact.

Last year’s massive fish kill in the province of Ha Tinh, blamed on toxic wastes released from the Taiwanese-owned Formosa Plastics steel plant, decimated tourism and fishing across four provinces– an unintended yet predictable consequence of the government’s aggressive push for development. The government’s reaction was abysmal: it barely shrugged at first, before cracking down on protesters demanding compensation. It subsequently reached a controversial agreement with Formosa, which did not include any sort of independent evaluation of the true scale of the spill.


A barber gives a customer a haircut on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam October 9, 2017. Source: Reuters/Kham


Coastal economic zones have been built over the years to host various industries – the Ha Tinh complex is one of the biggest foreign investments in the country. But while sea-based enterprises have boosted Vietnam’s national accounts, they have also extensively damaged its fragile ecosystem. Indeed, aggravated by global warming, the adverse effects on marine life are shocking.

Take Vietnam’s coral reefs, which are among the most vibrant in the world but also some of the most fragile. According to 2014 estimates, 96 percent of Vietnam’s reefs are badly damaged by human activity, and 75 percent are facing extinction. Never mind that a whopping 20 million people depend on the coral reef ecosystem for their livelihood and that the economic benefits they provide are estimated to be worth US$100 million. Sadly, the government’s general aloofness on environmental protection has only exacerbated over-exploitation and pollution.

Apart from foreign investment-driven industrialisation, another important factor behind the continuing degradation of Vietnam’s environment is mass tourism. The attempt to industrialise at record speed was accompanied by an equally aggressive promotion of the country as a choice tourist destination. With almost 10 million visitors in the first nine months of this year, representing a 28 percent increase compared to the same period last year, the industry is booming. However, in an ironic twist, the influx of millions of travellers is jeopardising Vietnam’s natural landscapes, the very resource that drew the surge in tourism in the country.

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For example, Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s most popular attractions, has turned into an “ecological disaster” as a result of toxic liquids leaking from tourist boats. More generally, Vietnam’s eastern coastline has lost much of its natural beauty to hotels and resorts that have mushroomed over the beaches.

Hanoi is becoming gradually more aware of the problem and has moved to make amends. In 2015, it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security to heighten international cooperation on protecting its reefs. Last year, as part of its biggest national beach clean-up campaign, the government set up a hotline to report illegal waste dumping along the coast.


Boats move among the craggy islands of Halong Bay, Vietnam. Source: AP Photo/Richard Vogel

However, it’s clear these actions merely treat the symptoms, not the causes. As tourists the world over are becoming increasingly sensitive to the impact they have on a country’s ecosystem, a new trend is emerging among travellers that would allow Hanoi to benefit from tourism while protecting its coasts: sustainable tourism.

The concept – based on the idea to make environmental preservation an integral part of the tourist’s experience – is a promising business model quickly catching the attention of business people and governments. At the “Our Ocean Conference” held in Malta in early October, representatives from businesses, close to 100 countries and other organisations pledged US$10.2 billion for sustainability projects.

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New initiatives promoting “on-the-ground tourism-based projects” are backed through priority funding from large international funds, like the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund. For example, Six Senses runs a project in Ninh Van Bay, and, alongside two Dutch marine biologists, the company is actively restoring coral reefs on the seafloor. In neighbouring Indonesia, the Misool Eco Resort in the Raja Ampat region provides a perfect example of how to balance tourism with sustainability. Built with biological waste, the resort is placed in a region with the world’s greatest concentration of marine biodiversity and is the leaseholder and manager of seven Marine Protected Areas.

Farther afield, private foundations such as the Philip Stephenson Foundation run coral reef preservation projects around the Caribbean island of Petit St Vincent, and have already been successful in applying this new approach. All of these examples could serve as models that could be implemented at scale in Vietnam – if only the political will existed.


Source: Dr Richard Murphy / Philip Stephenson Foundation

To be fair, some Vietnamese tour agencies have begun to cater to this newfound sense of responsibility towards protecting the environment of the host country. They have seen positive responses from tourists by encouraging them to partake in small acts of environmental activism. The agencies offer their own conservation efforts, incentivising their clients to take part in clean-up drives in exchange for discounts.

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But while these initiatives may seem small considering the scale of the issue at hand, they are promising steps in halting – if not reversing – the country’s worsening environmental crisis. Vietnam ultimately needs an economic reorientation that de-emphasises traditional goals of growth and expansion. For the tourism sector this is the easiest to achieve: sustainable tourism not only promotes environmental protection, but makes it its selling point.

If coupled with appropriate environmental protection policies and stringent enforcement, Vietnam can achieve a sustainable compromise between preserving its natural resources and promoting socio-economic development.