Vietnam province opens world's largest cave to tourists

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Stalactites at six kilometers depth inside Son Doong Cave

Son Doong, the world's largest cave in the north-central province of Quang Binh, will open soon for long day tours on a trial basis, local authorities have decided.

A source from the province's People's Committee, the local government, said Sunday that the tours will be open for up to seven tourists at a time and around 15 local people will work as tou rguides and porters.

Each tour can be designed for four to six nights, according to a statement signed by the province's vice mayor Tran Tien Dung.

Dan Tri report, citing the statement, said that if the trial proves beneficial and convenient, the cave will be developed for regular tours between February and August every year.

Son Doong, which is 150 meters high and 200 meters wide, became known worldwide in 2009 when it was explored by members of British Cave Research Association led by Howard Limbert and his wife Deb Limbert, guided by local resident Ho Khanh.

Four months ago, the British couple opened free English langauge and caving classes for residents of Son Trach Commune to prepare them to take advantage of opportunities caving tourism brings into the area.

They said they wanted to reciprocate the support they have received since 1990 in exploring many caves, including Son Doong, in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang system.

Many such explorations have seen the network of 300 different grottoes and caves win UNESCO world heritage recognition in 2003 for its unique beauty, biodiversity and geological diversity. Tourism revenues for the commune doubled from 2009 to VND24.5 billion (US$1.2 million) in 2011.

While wanting local residents to benefit, Howard Limbert said at a meeting with Vietnamese experts last December that the negative environmental impacts of caving tourism needs to be minimized. He  said caves should be closed regularly and for enough time.

Any necessary construction needs to be made with natural materials like wood, the power of lighting needs to be reduced or, better still, there should be no lights and only footpaths should be illuminated, he said.

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