World wonder status for Ha Long Bay raises new challenges

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New world title will make no difference until existing infrastructure, services are improved, experts say


A tourist boat sails past the stone islands of Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay, by virtue of being the jewel in Vietnam's tourism crown, has always been in the spotlight, but the lights have just gotten a lot brighter.

It has been named in the temporary list of seven new natural wonders of the world, but amidst the cheer and celebrations that have erupted, concerns have risen about preserving the world heritage site.

The tourism industry will clearly benefit from the announcement made by the Switzerland-based New7Wonders Foundation last Friday.

Hundreds of millions of voters around the world have cast their votes for Ha Long Bay in Quang Ninh Province, the Amazon Rainforest in South America, Iguazu Falls at the border of Brazil and Argentina, Jeju Volcanic Island off South Korea, Komodo National Park in Indonesia, Puerto Princesa Underground River in the Philippines, and South Africa's Table Mountain.

A total of 440 destinations in 220 countries were nominated for the contest, from which 28 finalists were chosen.

A source from the New Open World organization that initiated the popularity poll said the voting calculation will be checked, validated and independently verified before the final results are announced early next year. There could be changes in the list after the verification process is completed, it said.

The head of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism Nguyen Van Tuan said the new status will open more opportunities for Vietnam and Vietnamese tourism. "Ha Long will be better known in the world, helping us promote the image of Vietnamese people and culture."

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Vu Quyet Thang, director of travel agent Hoang Viet Travel Tour, said: "This is good news for the tourism industry and will help lure more visitors to Vietnam."

He said his firm plans to open more tours to the world heritage site, anticipating increasing demand. It will also highlight the new status to all its customers and partners, and add the information to its brochures and website.

The company is also negotiating with other service providers such as hotels, restaurants and transport firms to offer better prices to customers booking tours on the occasion, he said.

Nguyen Cong Hoan, deputy director of travel agent Hanoi Redtour, said the title of being one of seven new wonders of nature, will benefit Vietnam's tourism in general and Ha Long Bay in particular. However, the information is now better known within the country than abroad, although it is a destination that is on the list of most foreign visitors, especially those coming to the country for the first time.

"Thus, we should focus more on promoting the new title in the world, especially our big tourism markets such as EU and the US," Hoan said. Up to 70 percent of his firm's foreign customers choose tours to Ha Long when coming to Vietnam, he added.

Echoing Hoan, Nguyen Minh Man, a representative of travel agent Vietravel, said: "Tours to Ha Long will become more attractive for domestic customers. The impact on foreign visitors will only be seen in the next three or four months."

Ha Long Bay features thousands of limestone islets of various sizes and shapes. The bay has a 120-kilometer long coastline and is approximately 1,553 square kilometers in size, with 1,969 islets.

Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves. Others support floating villages of fishermen, who ply the shallow waters for 200 species of fish and 450 different kinds of mollusks.

Challenges

Hoan said Ha Long Bay, which was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site twice in 1994 and 2000, is already very well-known in the world.

"Thus, the most important thing for Ha Long Bay is the improvement of infrastructure and its environment, and preservation, not seeking a new title," he said.

He said the tourism infrastructure of the world heritage site has not been upgraded for many years, while environmental pollution in the bay has gotten worse. "Quang Ninh Province has not yet considered tourism a key industry, so unsustainable coal exploration still occurs, destroying the bay's environment."

Hoan also said the number of ships providing overnight stays on the bay has increased, but safety standards have not been strictly controlled. Some tourist boats operating in the bay have been involved in deadly accidents, affecting the reputation of the local tourism industry, he said.

Meanwhile, tourism products on the bay are very poor, Hoan said.

These shortcomings have hindered tourists from returning to the bay, he said. "We should focus more on improving the quality of tours to Ha Long Bay. Word-of-mouth from foreign visitors is even more precious than the new title."

Thang of Hoang Viet Travel Tour said Vietnam should learn from Thailand in developing new tourism attractions.

He said the government should also increase investment in tourism promotion, as the investment of Vietnam is only 3 to 5 percent compared to that of other regional countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

Tuan of the tourism administration said the department will propose to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism that it makes a plan to promote the image of Ha Long Bay in a professional manner. It plans to seek opinions on the issue from local and foreign experts, he said.

Ngo Van Hung, who manages the bay, said more visitors will put more pressure on the environment because more tourism facilities will need to be built to serve them.

"If the number of visitors increases dramatically, we will not be able to meet all the demands," Hung said.

Vietnam attracted 4.83 million foreign visitors in the 10 months through October, up 15.8 percent over the same period last year. The country's main source markets include China, Japan, South Korea, the US, and Australia.

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