Doubts cast over validity of new natural wonder campaign

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The euphoria of Ha Long Bay making it to the final short-list of a campaign to choose seven new wonders of nature has subsided quickly, and questions are now being raised about the value of the title.

Allegations have surfaced that the private company which organized the campaign, New Open World Corporation (NOWC), has made huge profits from the voting process.

The campaign was launched in 2007 as a private initiative by Bernard Weber, a Swiss-born, self-described film maker, aviator and adventurer, the idea being to encourage citizens around the world to select seven new natural wonders by popular vote.

Several online websites have now published links to stories on foreign websites saying that the Maldives withdrew the country from the New7Wonders campaign after claiming the NOWC began demanding increasingly high fees in order for the island nation to compete meaningfully for the remainder of the competition.

A story on the Minivan News said NOWC initially levied a US$199 participation fee upon signing of the initial contract in early 2009.

However, once the Maldives was announced as a finalist, NOWC began soliciting additional fees and expenses not clearly articulated in the original contract, which tourism authorities estimated will cost the Maldives upwards of half a million dollars.

According to the Minivan News, NOWC also attempted to charge telecom provider Dhiraagu $1 million for the right to participate in the New7Wonders campaign approximately $3 for every citizen in the Maldives a fee that was dropped to half a million when the telecom firm complained about the price.

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When tourism authorities expressed concern about the skyrocketing cost of participating in the competition, billed as a global democratic selection of the new seven wonders, NOWC expressed sympathy for the Maldives' economic situation and advised it to solicit money from the resort industry.

In February this year, Indonesia's Jakarta Post quoted the country's Tourism Minister Jero Wacik as saying the ministry had received a letter on December 29, 2010 saying the NOWC would "suspend" Komodo from the list of finalists if it refused to pay the $10 million license fee.

Earlier, in 2007, UNESCO had made it clear that there was no link whatsoever between its World Heritage program, which aims to protect world heritage, and the campaign for the "News7Wonders of Nature."

"Although UNESCO was invited to support this project on several occasions, the organization decided not to collaborate with Mr. Weber," the statement said.

Tran Nhat Hoang, director of the Culture-Sports-Tourism Promotion Center under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, however, said the ministry saw the campaign as an opportunity for Vietnam to promote its image in the world.

Hoang said that NOWC had not required Vietnam to pay any fee during the four years since Vietnam began participating in the campaign. However, he did not reveal how much money Vietnam has spent on the campaign.

"We should not complain that the campaign was costly, because it helped us send one more message from Ha Long to the world."

It is estimated that more than 20 million text messages have been sent to vote for Ha Long Bay. Each message costs VND630, of which VND300 goes to NOWC, VND300 goes to the telecom company and VND30 for tax and currency converter fees.

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