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A panoramic view of Quang Ninh Province's Ha Long Bay. Experts have called for improved services and preservation work as the UNESCO World Heritage Site gains further recognition as a natural wonder.

A hike in admission fees for the Ha Long Bay, Vietnam's foremost tourism site, has drawn a lot of flak, particularly over its timing and purpose.

Experts and industry insiders say that the hike in fees, unaccompanied by any improvement in services, exposes authorities to the charge that they are taking undue advantage of the site being short-listed as one of the seven new wonders of nature in the world.

Tourism agencies as well as tourists say that authorities in the northern province of Quang Ninh, where the UNESCO- recognized World Heritage Site is located, should be focusing on improving services and better protecting the site to attract more visitors.

On November 12, the New7Wonders Foundation short-listed Ha Long Bay as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature after a preliminary counting of the votes.

The Switzerland-based foundation's campaign has been carried out over the past four years, starting with more than 440 locations from about 220 countries.

In alphabetical order, the short-listed winners are: Amazon, Ha Long Bay, Iguazu Falls, Jeju Island, Komodo National Park, Puerto Princesa Underground River and Table Mountain.

The list is expected be finalized early next year when the organization has finished verifying the votes. 

On December 1, the Ha Long Bay management agency announced new admission fees, doubling previous prices and requiring tourists to pay per package that includes several tourism spots instead of buying tickets for each spot. The increase was based on a decision issued by the Quang Ninh People's Committee the provincial administration on November 18

Under the decision, visitors to Ha Long Bay will pay between VND60,000 and VND100,000 (US$2.9-4.7) each, depending on the route they choose, unlike the present arrangement where admission fees of between VND10,000 and VND20,000 are charged per site visited.

Do Duc Thang, deputy chief of the bay's management board, said the increase is reasonable and commensurate with the site's prestige. He also said other reasons for the increase include inflation and a need for funds to improve the quality of the site's management.

Currently 45 percent of admission fees are spent on preserving the site, including maintaining bridges and other equipment, he said.

However, several travel agencies said their business has been affected because the decision was implemented at short notice

NOT NOW, SAYS TOURISM MINISTRY

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has recommended not increasing admission fees at Ha Long Bay after the hike attracted widespread criticism from tourism agencies and the public.

"The ministry has advised Quang Ninh Province not to increase ticket fares these days," said the ministry spokesman To Van Dong.

"Such an increase requires detailed planning and should be implemented at the right time," he said.

On November 12, the Switzerland-based New7Wonders Foundation short-listed Ha Long Bay as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.

Six days later, Quang Ninh People's Committee issued a decision, increasing entrance fees at Ha Long Bay tourism sites. The decision was implemented on December 1.

On Tuesday, the bay management said they had not received any information regarding the tourism ministry's advice.

Do Duc Thang, deputy director of Ha Long Bay Management, said they had obtained approval from the provincial People's Council and a revocation of the decision will have to be approved by the local legislature.

"After the admission fees were increased, we negotiated with foreign partners to amend contracted tours but several of them refused," said Tran Vinh Loc, director of a travel agency in Ho Chi Minh City. He said a partner from Hong Kong even terminated a contract to send tourists to the site.

Phan Dinh Hue, director of Vong Tron Viet Tourism Company, said it was unreasonable to sell tickets per route instead of individual sites.

"Tourists now have to pay for the whole route even if they just want to visit one or two sites on the route," he said.

Hue criticized the bay management for focusing too much on admission fees instead of improving services to increase revenue.

Some experts said the increase was too hasty for agencies that have already sold tours to the site because of the steep price difference. And in the long term, they added, an increase in price without corresponding improvement in services would not help lure more tourists.

A former travel magazine editor and journalist in Hanoi, an Australian who did not want to be named, said the price hike should not have been blamed on inflation.

"It seems to be cheaply taking advantage of the situation to up prices moments after the win is announced. If inflation is a problem, why not tackle things earlier, say when it was running at over 20 percent?" she told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Tim Russell, managing director of the travel agency Come and Go Vietnam in HCMC, also said it is unreasonable to blame the hike on inflation.

Commenting on the latest move by Quang Ninh authorities and similar problems in Vietnam tourism, Russell said he is "tired" of talking about that.

"Plenty of us in the industry have spoken about this before, and yet nobody in authority listens to us"¦ I have hundreds of ideas but no one ever listens," he said.

David Brown, an American who directed a youth environmental education project at Ha Long Bay in 2005-2008, said the increase is acceptable. However, he said the additional revenue should actually be spent on protecting the bay environment and improving quality of the tours.

"[Around] VND50,000 is a cheap price for an opportunity to see (and preserve) a glorious bit of the earth," he said.

"The local tourism companies ought to work harder to deliver distinctive and higher quality experiences," Brown said. "They and the bay management should be cooperating to open new areas to non-destructive tourism.  There is huge potential to develop sea kayaking and rock climbing." 

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He said one or two of the bay's 1969 islands could be selected for development of a boat landing and environmental education trail that makes ecosystems accessible to groups of visitors. 

"The fishermen people of the floating villages (only people indigenous to the bay, with a unique culture!) could be helped to build up an overnight stay experience for small groups of tourists," he said.

Most of the current competition is on prices for tours to the sites, not on quality or originality. 

Brown said most tours are "carbon copy experiences" as 80 percent of the 1,500 square kilometers world heritage site area is off limits for tourist boats.

He called for better protection of the bay which is threatened by shipping channels, destruction of forests on the bay's northern edge and the fast-paced urban and industrial development.

Ha Long Bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles of various sizes and shapes. The bay has a 120-kilometer long coastline and is approximately 1,553 square kilometers in size, with 1969 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.

Another feature of Ha Long Bay is the abundance of lakes inside the limestone islands. For example, Dau Be Island has six enclosed lakes.

Many tourists also said they wouldn't mind the higher admission fees as long as the site is well-preserved and services are good.

To Le, a tourist from HCMC, said she did not mind the hike in fees and would return to Ha Long Bay soon.

"I have visited many other countries but the best tourism site I have even been to is actually inside Vietnam. Ha Long Bay offers a unique experience," she said.

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