Vietnam's cave tourism boom threatened by poor services, security

By Truong Quang Nam, Thanh Nien News

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Foreign tourists in Quang Binh Province. Photo: Truong Quang Nam Foreign tourists in Quang Binh Province. Photo: Truong Quang Nam

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A tourist forgot her ID card at a hotel in Quang Binh Province’s capital town Dong Hoi and called over five times asking the hotel to mail it to her -- to no avail.
In the end, she had to ask a local friend to go and get it.
Questioned over their service, a hotel employee shrugged: “We don’t have free time.”
The north-central province has experienced a surge in visitors since its many caves--including the world’s largest Son Doong-- shot to international fame.
But many visitors complain that tourism services in the province have failed to keep pace with growth.
Most guesthouses, for example, are small and run by families who hire untrained children and relatives. 
Customers aren't always right, or safe
Only three restaurants in Dong Hoi meet the national standards for receiving tourists. At others, customers are treated like "beggars," despite their inflated prices, according to travel agents.
Nguyen Dinh An, director of Asia Travel Companions Company, told such a story during a recent tourism conference held in Dong Hoi.
“The restaurant owner's attitude troubled the diners," An said. "The treated them as though they were begging to eat. I had to insist we leave, as I felt offended,”
Tourism inspectors recently fined beachfront restaurant Quang Phu in the town for misbehaving after numerous complaints.
Local authorities also failed to step in on tourists’ behalf after they were attacked.
On June 5, a local man named Son began throwing stones at a group of tourists swimming in Mooc stream in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
When a tour guide asked him to stop, a fight broke out between them.
The Quang Binh tourism department reported the case to the provincial police, who later replied that the case was an aberration and “did not accurately reflect the overall security situation in the area.”
Three months later, on the night of September 7, a 29-year old French tourist named Emily Marie was harassed by eight young men while driving her motorbike through the national park.
Police issued fines and a warning to the men, after she declined to file a lawsuit against them.
Local statistics showed arrivals to Quang Binh spiked significantly during the past year -- rising to a rate equal to or higher than established tourist staples like Hue or Da Nang, also in central Vietnam.
Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park became a UNESCO heritage site in 2003 thanks to its 300 caves and grottos, which date back some 400 million years.
Son Doong and a related network of stunning caves were discovered by a local man named Ho Khanh, but they did not gain international recognition until the British Cave Research Association explored them years ago with Khanh’s help.
Nguyen Van Ky, deputy director of the Quang Binh tourism department, said the province’s tourism industry relies wholly on the area's natural beauty, referring to the grottos at Phong Nha-Ke Bang.
“Skills and technology are somewhere far away,” Ky said, suggesting that it would be a very long time before local establishments can properly accommodate the influx of tourists.
Only around 25.8 percent of the province's tourism professionals are trained, a rate very near the country’s bottom.
Quang Binh's restaurants, he added, have the least-trained employees, he said.
Businesses do a poor job of cooperating and promoting their services, he said, adding that travel agents attending a recent tourism fair in Russia said they'd heard little about Quang Binh.
Nguyen Chau A, director of the Oxalis company--the sole provider of caving tours in Quang Binh--said the province should look again at their huge potential to start building relevant services and infrastructure.
As beginners, they also have to make sure that they are not overloaded, A said.
The province can focus on high-quality products, for example, to attract customers with deeper pockets and try to get them to stay longer, he said.

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