Avoiding touristy tourism

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Eight tour operators plan to transform the tourism landscape with two key concepts: sustainability and responsibility

Women of Black H'mong and Red Yao ethnic minorities try to sell head scarves to a foreign tourist in Sa Pa, the famous mountainous resort town in northern Vietnam (Photo by Nghia Pham)

The famous love market in Sa Pa has been consigned to history.

It has been killed by the very industry that promoted it with an exclusive focus on profit and no thought to the consequences of unbridled tourism promotion on local cultures and lifestyles.

Ethnic minority youth no longer have the privacy to engage in the long-standing courting tradition. Others have given up their traditional vocations to subsist on tourism, and local skills, traditions and cultures are being lost rapidly.

Sadly, Sa Pa is not an exception.

Fortunately, at least some industry insiders have woken up to the need for less destructive and more sustainable forms of tourism that encourages preservation of local cultures.

In a setting where the considerable resources that the country has poured into tourism promotion have been, by and large, wasted on unimaginative and ill-advised ventures, the protection of local cultures, environment and biodiversity becomes critically important.

Thanh Nien Weekly talks with the chairman of the Responsible Travel Club, Dang Xuan Son, also product manager for Footprint Vietnam Travel.

Thanh Nien Weekly: How did you come up with the idea of establishing a responsible travel club?

Dang Xuan Son: We came up with the idea several years ago. It originated from one of our projects in Ha Long Bay, under which we used a type of racket to pick up the trash floating in the bay. Obviously Ha Long was so huge that we couldn't really make a difference. Then I thought of asking other tour operators to join the effort.


Footprint Travel, Indochina Travelland, Active Travel, Blue Swimmer Adventures, Freewheelin' Tours, La Vie Vu Linh, I Travel and Sisters Tours Vietnam.

For more information about RTC, visit www.rtcvietnam.org

We managed to gather the current eight members through the help of SNV, the Dutch Development Organization. It's not easy to get everybody on the same page since we are all competitors. However, we can still figure out ways to promote responsible tourism, and along the way, improve our tourism products.

What is the main goal of the Responsible Travel Club?

We want to create additional responsible tour products and support our members in training their staff on the environment, culture and community. We are also planning to work with the World Wildlife Fund on different environmental projects. We will also publish information about responsible travel in brochures and flyers for distribution among college students. It's important to educate the younger generation on this issue.

What does it mean to be a responsible traveler or a responsible tour operator?

Let's take an example from one of our projects. Members of the Responsible Travel Club are currently operating tours to Chieng Yen Commune in Son La Province. Before the tour began, we had to figure out which should be designated as guest houses, and which areas would be reserved for pedestrians and/or bikers. That's the business aspect.

Then we conducted training courses for locals about responsible tourism which means not to bug tourists and drag them to their houses. It means not harassing them constantly to buy your products.

The way we operate in Chieng Yen is about sharing the tourism dollars and the benefits among local households. About four or five households are placed under one committee. The head of the committee has the responsibility to allocate the number of guests for each household.

In Vietnam, responsible travel is still not a familiar concept. There are many other sectors where we need to promote sustainable development, such as exploitation of natural resources, including minerals and forests. As the tourism industry in the country has just taken off, there is a huge rush to make big profits. People often forget about the effects they could have on the communities and the environment. Take Sa Pa for example. Anyone who has a passion for the town can realize that it has been losing its authenticity. Sa Pa's love market is long gone


Many locals have become too dependent on tourism dollars. Some have quit farming and their normal work. Sa Pa is still famous. But we should think that at one point, when Sa Pa becomes saturated and stale, or when people start to look for other offthe-beaten-track destinations, it would be these locals who will get hurt the most.

Besides, the tourism authorities, both at the national and local level, have not done enough to promote responsible tourism. Recently SNV and the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism did organize some talks about responsible travel. And we hope that the development of tourism can shift toward a more sustainable and responsible direction.

Some people say responsible travel is only for those who can afford to stay in expensive eco-lodges. How would you respond?

 You can still be a responsible traveler if you are a backpacker. Being a responsible traveler means respecting the environment, the town and the locals. For example, when you get to Sa Pa and some children ask you for money, you can tell them that they should go to school instead. If you give them money, they would continue doing it. And that contributes to making the community less sustainable and more dependent on tourism dollars.

It's easier to see the negative effects on the environment. What about the negative effects tourism can have on cultural values? In some areas of Sa Pa ethnic residents no longer prefer dressing in their ethnic customs. People have also started replacing their traditional homes with ungainly modern ones. All of these changes should be taken note of by tour operators and local authorities. We need better culture preservation policies. Hotels and resorts should think about training and employing locals.

For example, instead of organizing tours around hotels and major guesthouses in Sa Pa Town, why not provide tourists accommodation with the locals? Normally, a homestay only costs around US$5 per night compared to the average $20 you might spend on a hotel.

In our project in Chieng Yen, we established a community tourism fund. Each household contributes part of their earnings in tourism into the fund. The fund can be used to upgrade roads or infrastructure in the villages or train locals in different projects. That's how we can promote sustainable development.

Do you think there's potential to develop responsible tourism in Vietnam?

Definitely. The potential to develop responsible tourism will go along with the development of the tourism sector in general, especially community-based tourism. The best part about Vietnam is discovering its communities who should be included in the tourism circle.

According to a survey done by SNV, 90 percent of the respondents said they want to know that their money and the time they spend do not have any detrimental effects on the place. This awareness will increase in the future, as will the need for responsible tourism.

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