Quang Binh's provincial leaders have pledged to push ahead with a plan to build a gondola lift in the world’s largest cave, apparently without having secured approval from national authorities.
The north-central province's leadership held a press conference on Tuesday to dispel environmental concerns about its plan to build a US$212-million cable car system inside Son Doong Cave.
Truong An Ninh, a spokesman for Quang Binh Province, announced on October 22 that they had chosen the Sun Group (a real estate and resort developer in the nearby city of Da Nang) to survey the Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park, where Son Doong is located, before installing the system.
The two-section route covers 10.6 km from Tien Son Cave to the rear opening of Son Doong, which contains at least 150 individual grottos, a dense subterranean jungle, and several underground rivers.
According to the plan, 30 intermediate supporting towers will be built to buttress the cable.
Each tower will occupy around 10 square meters and feature a 360-degree camera that will help alert park staff of forest fires or other threats.
Nguyen Huu Hoai, Quang Binh's mayor, told reporters from more than 30 media outlets that the project would not threaten any caves.
When asked what affect the system might have on Son Doong's structural integrity (it lies on two fault lines) officials said the support towers would be small and as few as possible.
The system will only penetrate 300-500 meters inside Son Doong, he added, meaning tourists will have to walk into the cave to use the service.
“There won’t be any impact on the caves’ natural beauty or structural integrity,” Hoai said. "The system will not pose any threat to visitors' safety."
Le Thanh Tinh, director of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, said they would carefully choose locations for the support towers to ensure that the fewest trees possible are chopped down.
Officials said the system will be designed with the principles of conversation in mind and draw on lessons learned from 86 similar projects at national parks in 26 other countries around the world.
The province will carefully consider the project and consult central government agencies as well as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) before approving it, Hoai said.
“If the agencies and UNESCO don’t endorse [the cable car system], we won’t do it.”
Way out of poverty
Hoai said that ever since UNESCO recognized Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park as a world heritage in 2003, the province has been preserving and developing it in the hopes of socio-economic prosperity.
“With so much potential to become an international destination, Quang Binh cannot accept a future of poverty. Tourism development, including the cable car system, is the right direction for Quang Binh to escape poverty and become a rich province,” he said.
“The cable car system will surely create tourism breakthroughs and jobs for thousands of locals.”
On September 1, Quang Binh authorities suspended a tour to Son Doong but said they would reopen the cave next January for eight tours a month with around 10 people each.
They said the tours run by Oxalis Company between August 2013 and August 2014 were “successful.”
First discovered in 1991 by local resident Ho Khanh, Son Doong in the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park attained world fame in 2009 after being explored by members of the British Cave Research Association with Khanh’s help.
During the one-year tourism program to test the waters, 243 adventure travelers from 34 countries explored the cave on six-day trips that cost each of them $3,000.
The five-kilometer-long Son Doong is 150 meters high and 200 meters wide. It took over as the world’s largest from Deer Cave in Malaysia, which is 148 meters high and 142 meters wide at the widest part.
Hoai, the Quang Binh mayor, said the Son Doong hikes currently offered by a single provider, Oxalis, demand strength, time, and money.
The cable car ride would allow any visitor to admire Son Doong and other attractions at the park without endeavoring on an adventurous tour.
“I’ve talked to experts and they suggested that the route would be very beautiful; few places in the world will compare.”
Hoai said the cable car route is expected to carry 1,000 passengers an hour for around $20 each.
"Tourism development, including the cable car system, is the right direction for Quang Binh to escape poverty and become a rich province." -- Nguyen Huu Hoai, chairman of Quang Binh Province
He called that a “suitable” plan given the fact that the park receives an average of 5,000 visitors a day.
Some days, as many as 10,000 people visit Paradise Cave, which was so named by a British Cave Research Association team that first explored it.
Dang Minh Truong, general director of Sun Group, pledged to minimize any environmental impacts during the construction process.
Truong said they would use modern technology to collect and compress any and all garbage discharged by tourists and remove it from the caves using the gondola system.
The project investor has hired Austrian cable car builder Doppelmayr Garaventa to survey the area and build the route.
Standing at the press conference, Peter Vogelmann, the company's Southeast Asia director, said the experienced firm is confident they can do a good job in Phong Nha-Ke Bang.
Hoai said the firm has surveyed the area nine times with the participation of cable car and geological experts from Austria, Australia, Germany and Switzerland, and will continue doing so until they come up with an optimal approach to construction.
Nguyen Dinh Toan, vice minister of construction, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that the ministry had not been officially informed of the press conference.
Toan said that without his ministry’s approval, the project announcement means nothing.
He added that the province proposed the addition of the cable car system, but given the possibly of its huge environmental impact, the ministry has sought input from the tourism and agricultural ministers.
“We have not received any responses from agencies concerned and we have not rendered an official verdict on the matter,” he said.