Vietnam province sticks to casino, golf plans for UNESCO geopark

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The Dong Van geopark in Ha Giang. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

Authorities in the northern province of Ha Giang have said plans to build a casino and golf course on a rocky highland that is also a UNESCO geopark are unchanged, saying there is no threat to the site while poor locals will enjoy the payoff.

Ma Ngoc Giang, deputy chief manager of the Dong Van Karst Geopark, said the casino and 18-hole course would be built at one of the park's gates.

"Surely the area for construction won't be significant compared to the entire park area," Giang was quoted as saying by Tuoi Tre (Youth)  newspaper last week. The park is around 2,350 square kilometers.

Managing a geological park is different from a biosphere reserve or other relics in that preservation can go hand in hand with development, he said.

"What can 250,000 people at the park live on if we merely preserve it?" he asked, saying he has gone to several geoparks in the world that even have airports.

Casinos and golf courses are high-end services, and since they target rich people the risk of the relic being affected is low, he claimed.

"Customers of high end services are ones who spend a lot of money and want quiet, and to enjoy local culture."

Only foreigners are allowed into casinos in Vietnam.

The Dong Van highlands have a population of more than 250,000 people belonging to 17 minority groups, 70 percent of them H'Mong.

It was named a global geological park in 2010 for being a hub of ethnic culture and retracing the geological history of the formation and development of the Earth.

Limestone can be found in 11 layers on 80 percent of its land area and two of the layers are sediments dating back 400-600 million years ago.

The park is widely recognized as one of the most beautiful -- if not the most beautiful -- places in Vietnam.

It is one of two geoparks in Southeast Asia, along with Langkawi in Malaysia, and 54 in the world.

Its geopark status has attracted more tourists -- 302,000 in 2011 and nearly 400,000 last year.

The first quarter saw nearly 140,000 people visit the place.

Ha Giang authorities announced in April that interested parties could apply to invest in the project, which is expected to finish by 2020.

Vietnam News Agency said deputy PM Nguyen Thien Nhan hailed the plan, calling it a milestone in the highlands' socioeconomic development.

But the idea of a casino did not win much support from related ministries.

The province was silent about it before raising it again at a meeting of local and central agencies on June 14.

Another park management official told Tuoi Tre that a driving range of several hectares is already under construction inside the park.

He said the province hopes for government and investors' support for it.

"We need some breakthroughs or else the vast rock highlands will just simply be rocks like it has been for millions of years."

He hoped tourism services would help improve the life of the ethnic communities, something that many social programs have failed to.

"They will open the door for locals to escape poverty."

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