The iconic limestone islands of Ha Long Bay in Northeast Vietnam are a spectacular natural wonder. Millions of tourists are drawn to the Bay each year to experience the unique landscape of the UNESCO World Heritage Site – and in doing so, providing income and economic security to the local communities and the country. But this key source of income and prosperity could be under threat due to unsustainable levels of tourism.
When sailing through Ha Long Bay, if you draw your eyes away from the stunning horizon and glance down into the murky waters, the serious environmental consequences of excessive tourism in this area are clear to see.
Swirling pools of rubbish float past the convoys of diesel-chugging tourist boats, as they ferry people through the Bay on the same routes, and to the same viewpoints. A quick kayak around the Bay had me paddling hard to get back to the boat, after kayaking past floating plastic waterproof macs, endless plastic bottles and a syringe…
It’s heart-breaking to see a landscape so unique and spectacular as Ha Long Bay succumbing to the negative effects of tourism – apparently powerless, uneducated or perhaps uncaring tour operators, locals and tourists alike. It is easy to imagine a point in the not-too-distant future when the water pollution reaches levels which are no longer safe. Tourism will suffer. At that point, what will happen to both the local and national economies?
Many Vietnamese people make their living from the Bay, whether that be as a small-time tour operator, a staff member aboard a tour boat, a fisherman, a resident of the remaining floating village or a hotelier on the shores of the Bay. When travellers and tourists no longer want to visit a dirty and unsafe Bay and the income generated by tourism and fishing ceases to exist, where will locals find employment, job opportunities and security?
Looking to a sustainable future
It is not all doom and gloom. Actions are being taken in the area to try to reduce the water pollution, such as new environmental regulations and legislation. However, the lack of enforcement has led to the creation of the Ha Long-Cat Ba Alliance, a three-year initiative funded by the United States Agency for International Development that aims to build partnership between the Vietnamese government, businesses and civil society in order to improve environmental management, with tourism playing a huge part in this.
The environmentalists amongst us might think that ceasing all boat tours in the Bay would be an immediate and ideal solution to ease unsustainable tourism. But this would lead to negative consequences for locals and businesses alike, drastically reducing income for the area. It’s a classic case of a sustainable development paradox: how to manage people, and the damage they create, whilst also preserving the environment that they have come to experience.
Improving the quality of tourist boat tours, and reducing the quantity could help to keep the Bay as a great source of income for the country, without damaging it for future generations. Programmes such as waste-water management, waste-disposal and clean-up operations could also be more effective initiatives to focus on.
Environmental education could also go a long way to helping to reduce the impacts of tourism on the area. Educating locals, business owners, tour guides, tourists, school children on to so on, on the benefits of thinking long-term and about sustainable tourism, could hopefully bring about some positive change. With increased awareness and understanding, people may be more likely to take action now to protect their natural environments for the future.
This scenario is not one which is unique to Ha Long Bay, but one which is repeated all over the world, especially in developing nations where the need for tourism is critical. With so much at risk long-term, sustainable tourism and protecting our natural environments just makes clear economic sense. Protecting both the environment and natural wonders, also protects key sources of income and economic prosperity for communities and countries alike. That’s what sustainability is really about. I hope to return to Vietnam in the future, and my dream would be to see a clean and protected Ha Long Bay.