A half-cocked plan to build a gondola lift to Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, in Quang Binh Province was seemingly derailed this week by national tourism officials who insisted on further research.
On Wednesday, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism released a dispatch charging that the cable car project lacked sufficient input from experts at the World Heritage Center of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and its advisory body, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“Therefore, the construction of the cable car cannot be incorporated into the aggregate planning of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park [home to Son Doong Cave] at this stage,” the dispatch, dated November 7, read.
The communiqué had been sent to the Ministry of Construction following widespread public outrage about the provincial government's efforts to ramrod the plan into action.
UNESCO recognized Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park as a global heritage site in 2003. Years later, a local man led a British team into Son Doong Cave which occupied a virtually unexplored part of the park.
The cave, which contains at least 150 individual grottos, a dense subterranean jungle, and several underground rivers became known as the world's largest cave.
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.
Late last month, Quang Binh’s provincial leaders revealed plans to build a US$212-million cable car system that would end somewhere inside Son Doong.
The north-central province tapped the Sun Group, a real estate and resort developer in the central city of Da Nang to survey the Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park before installing the system.
During a press briefing held on November 4, local authorities described plans to build a 10.6km, two-section cable car system linking Tien Son and Son Doong caves.
The initial design called for 30 intermediary cable support towers that would each occupy around 10 square meters and buttress a 360-degree camera to help alert park staff of forest fires or other threats.
The plan sparked fierce opposition from civil society and conservation groups as well as tourists. As of press time, nearly 65,000 people from all over the world have signed a petition
in protest over the project.
Its defenders say the cable car will make it easier for tourists to explore the cave, giving local tourism a much-needed boost that would increase revenues and create jobs.
But those in the opposing camp say that the proposal's much-touted benefits pale in comparison to its possible drawbacks.
The naysayers point to a lack of preliminary studies on the geographical, topographical and ecological impacts the system could have on the park. A massive injection of tourists, they warn, could potentially wreak havoc on Son Doong's structural integrity.
Worse still, the conservationists say construction of the cable car could undermine UNESCO's recognition of Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park.
An International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) team was on a field mission in September to gauge whether the park is eligible to have its world heritage status renewed -- this time in recognition of its biodiversity.
Following their visit, the ICUN team alerted UNESCO about the planned cable car system, prompting the UN agency to request a thorough analysis of its potential environmental impact.
Vietnam is expected to hand in its report by February 2015.
UNESCO will then dispatch another team to Vietnam to study the feasibility of the plan, before advising the country whether or not to proceed.
“Since UNESCO does not yet have complete information about the cable car project, it is impossible for us to start guessing what impact it may have on the preservation of the World Heritage site,” Roni Amelan, a UNESCO spokesperson, told Thanh Nien News. “As to the World Heritage status of the site, we cannot speculate about the future decisions the World Heritage Committee may make when it receives all the information it needs.”
An adventure tour through the world's largest cave Son Doong in Quang Binh Province. Photo courtesy of Oxalis
‘Not a well thought-out plan’
First discovered in 1991 by local resident Ho Khanh, Son Doong shot to international fame in 2009 after being explored by members of the British Cave Research Association with Khanh’s help.
Interest in the cave has made the once-remote and bomb-ravaged province a major destination where visitor numbers now rival established central destinations like Hue and Da Nang.
The jewel in the crown has always been Son Doong, which remains extremely hard to access.
Taxing, multi-day hikes into the cave have only been offered by a single private company, Oxalis Adventure Tours. Up until now, tourists willing to pay thousands of dollars to take such a trip had to put their name on a one-year waiting list.
It seemed like the province was happy enough with the program.
Despite several hiccups, it deemed a trial program run between August 2013 and August 2014 “successful.” During the one-year trial, 243 adventure travelers from 34 countries explored the cave on six-day trips that cost each of them $3,000.
But in a bizarre about-face, Quang Binh authorities have promoted the cable car project as a silver bullet to lift locals out of abject poverty.
Conservationists are not buying it.
They say in a country where provincial leaders are too-often evaluated by GDP growth alone, environmental concerns are likely to be sidelined in the design and construction of something like a cable car system.
“I understand Quang Binh authorities want to development their province, but a cable car built by an outside investor at a cost of $200 million, which is a huge amount of money … is not a well-thought out plan,” Pamela McElwee, an assistant professor of human ecology at Rutgers University who has extensively researched Vietnam's protected areas, told Thanh Nien News.
“How will they recoup this huge investment? By selling $10 tickets? Unlikely,” she said.
A smarter idea, according to McElwee, would be to raise the quality of tourism services provided in Quang Binh. She recalled a recent Thanh Nien News piece detailing several tourists (both foreign and local) who had been harassed and made to feel unwelcome.
“That is something Quang Binh authorities need to fix to attract more people,” she said.
The big 'no-no'
The tourism ministry’s abrupt objection to the cable car project indicates that Quang Binh's leadership pushed for it apparently without securing approval from national authorities.
Other than the tourism ministry, the government’s news website has also run several articles criticizing the project and questioning its feasibility.
In a piece posted on the site on November 1, Tran Hoang Mai, an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was quoted as saying that UNESCO often threatens to de-list World Heritage sites facing threats and alluded to the possibility that Phong Nha – Ke Bang faces a similar threat.
Not surprisingly, the idea of building a huge infrastructure project designed to draw as many visitors as possible to a carefully protected ecological wonder has not gone over well with conservationists.
“If the province bothered to upgrade training and services for tourism, such as professional guides who can help tourists understand the area, they could get tourists to stay longer and spend more money, which would raise employment and bring more tax revenue to the province,” McElwee said.
“Vietnam seems to have this deep insecurity that its natural beauty and scenic landscapes are not enough -- they must be ‘improved’ with cable cars, casinos, or loud karaoke… It’s a real shame”.