An adventure tour through the world's largest cave Son Doong in Quang Binh Province. Photo courtesy of Oxalis
The Vietnamese government seems to have backed off from its proposal to build a gondola lift in Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, after it came into stiff opposition from civil society, conservation groups and tourists.
Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai signed off February 8 on a master plan for the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park, home to Son Doong Cave, in Quang Binh Province. The document does not mention construction of the cable car that envisaged opening up Son Doong to mass tourism, ferrying 1,000 visitors an hour to the cave.
The document highlighted the need to “strictly safeguard” protected areas, including Son Doong Cave. It calls on related authorities to develop high-quality tourism in those areas and “restrict the number of daily visitors”.
Experts interpret the directive as a veto against the cable car.
“It doesn’t allow for mass tourism to the cave, meaning the cable car project cannot materialize,” Ta Hoa Phuong, a Hanoi-based geologist and a critic of the cable car plan, told Thanh Nien News.
“It also means that the current model of exploring the cave, which allows 1,000 visitors annually, is appropriate.”
Taxing, multi-day hikes into the cave are offered by just one private company, Oxalis Adventure Tours. Tourists willing to pay thousands of dollars for such a trip have to put their name on a one-year waiting list.
UNESCO recognized Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park as a global heritage site in 2003. 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 bomb-ravaged province a major destination whose 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.
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, and 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.
Last October local 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 Phong Nha - Ke Bang before installing the 10.6km, two-section cable car system.
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 to forest fires and other threats.
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 critics say the proposal's much-touted benefits pale in comparison to its likely 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.
As of press time nearly 71,000 people from all over the world have signed a petition
to protest against the project.
Despite the vehement opposition, last November the tourism ministry gave Quang Binh the green light to conduct a preliminary survey.
But with the government’s latest decision, “Son Doong now has some legal protection at least until 2030,” Phuong, the Hanoi-based expert, said.
“By then I’m convinced future generations will be able to work out measures to conserve the cave and develop sustainable tourism.”
Not over yet
Howard Limbert, who led the British Cave Research Association team to the cave in 2009, welcomed the decision by the government.
“I’m sure Quang Binh will prosper in a controlled fashion and it will become in the near future one of the top attractions in Vietnam, especially for foreign travelers,” he said.
But skeptics say there is no sign that Quang Binh authorities will relent, pointing out that in a country where provincial leaders are too often evaluated on GDP growth alone, environmental concerns are likely to be sidelined when it comes to something like a cable car system.
Le Thanh Tinh, director of Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park, said the government decision does not spell finis for the gondola lift plan.
“Quang Binh will continue to ameliorate the environmental impact assessment of the project and submit it later to the government for re-consideration,” Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper quoted him as saying Thursday.
Nguyen The Hung, director of the tourism ministry’s cultural heritage department, confirmed to Tuoi Tre that Quang Binh would be allowed to continue with the project.
Experts say the case is emblematic of conflicts brewing across Vietnam's protected areas.
In some rare cases where the need for conservation prevailed over economic interests, it took the intervention of PM Nguyen Tan Dung.
In January 2013 the Tam Dao Bear Rescue Center, Vietnam's sole bear sanctuary, facing eviction on spurious grounds allegedly trumped up in a corruption-ridden land dispute, got the PM's backing to stay put in a move that surprised many.
Nine months later the government also struck down a proposal to build two hydropower plants in Cat Tien National Park, a UNESCO world biosphere reserve, in the southern province of Dong Nai.
At the end of the day those rare environmental victories just show that “on difficult tradeoffs between conservation and development, local authorities and the ministries don’t have a good system in place to weigh public opinion and evaluate environmental costs and benefits,” Pamela McElwee, an assistant professor of human ecology at Rutgers University who has extensively researched Vietnam's protected areas, told Thanh Nien News.
“It’s an inefficient way to practice environmental policy.”