By: Helen Clark

At least a couple of times a year, the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism  is torn apart in the local press, along with the agency’s and often-terribly strange ideas for tourism promotion.  Most recently has been a cable car in a cave.

Such a venture does, superficially at least, sound rather charming. The only problem is that the US$212 million cable car system is set for the world’s largest cave, which was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. The cave, in Son Doong in central Vietnam, is so large it can apparently hold a 40 story skyscraper, has clouds floating around its top and is home to a jungle.  

Right now only one tour company, Oxalis, has a license, to take some 200 tourists annually to the cave, which is a tough hike to get to. The cost is around US$3,000 per person.

The project may sound as silly as a 2012 plan to paint all tourist boats in Ha Long Bay white. Or the US$6 charge to enter Hoi An’s touristy Old Quarter (where all the restaurants and famed tailors’ shops are located). Or even the plans by Vietnam Airlines to promote Hanoi’s 2010 millennium celebrations by offering cheap flights out of the country.

After all, isn’t the point of tourism to the UNESCO-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park and the tremendous Son Doong cave to enjoy its unique natural heritage? The infrastructure for the cable car would be enormous and the environmental damage almost inevitable, many experts say.

“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,” Pamela McElwee, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, told local media.

However the project looks more serious than Vietnam’s usual tourism missteps. Firstly, it is a question of capital: US$212 million is a lot of money. Secondly the company that runs the project is Sun Group, a central coast-based company that owns the InterContinental Hotel in Danang among many other holdings in the area.

“My impression is they [Sun Group] know how to capitalize on the sentiment of the local leaders – giving them GDP figures and promising jobs,” a local journalist told Asia Sentinel.  While what has actually been spoken about remains unclear, the promise of many jobs and a quick boost in the GDP of the small, poor province has been given as a primary reason for the large project.

The massive cave was found in 1991 by a local, Ho Khanh, and later explored by a group from the British Cave Research Association in 2009. It quickly made headlines and a National Geographic photo essay made it famous. The small-scale, light-footprint approach to allowing visitors to the cave was welcomed by some who are sick of the tourism industry’s rapid, reckless and often environmentally damaging expansion.

The wider Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park in central Quang Binh province receives far more tourists, both domestic and international. Bars, restaurants, karaoke parlors and less salubrious activities are common. Tourism in the area has grown rapidly.

Right now survey plans have been approved by the government but the process unsurprisingly has been non-transparent and confusing. In October, the Vietnamese press announced the provincial authorities in Quang Binh had approved surveys to study the viability of the cable car. That was met by criticism from many, including the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, UNESCO (which said it may have to review the heritage listing it gave to Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park in 2003)  and the British caver who originally explored the cave in 2009, Howard Limbert.

“The damage to Son Doong cave would be irreversible, and the cable cars would rob the cave of its pristine charms and the adventure thrills it has to offer,” Limbert told reporters. “The construction would also take its toll on the cave’s surrounding areas.”

Last week, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (separate from the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism) said it had blocked survey plans, then days later approved research into the viability of the venture. Public outcry has been swift, an online petition has received over 66,000 signatures from around the world and within Vietnam. The IUCN has also publicly condemned the venture; the final decision, it seems, rests with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

Last year, Dung halted the appropriation of land owned by a rescued bear sanctuary in Tam Dao outside Hanoi after strong international outcry and even letters from various embassies (sadly, forced land grabs of Vietnamese farmers’ land has not received the same level of international attention). Should international and domestic pressure mount he could do the same again. However Sun Group are far heavier hitters than those hoping to use the sanctuary’s land for a tourism project.

Sun Group also seem to have a fondness for cable cars: they operate a large one in Ba Na Hills, also in central Vietnam. At over five km it is one of the world’s longest, but the one proposed for Son Doong would likely end up as the longest in the world at 10.5 kilometers, going through three caves. Reasons given by Quang Binh officials for the environmental viability of the project include reasoning such as: the cars will be suspended and people won’t be allowed to litter (always a problem at Vietnamese tourist spots) and other UNESCO Heritage spots, albeit not ecologically unique caves, also have cable cars. The project, according to Sun’s CEO Dang Minh Truong, would be in line with UNESCO’s sustainable development criteria.

Sun also wanted to construct what, last year, would have been the “world’s highest, longest, and most complicated” cable car system at Fansipan, Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain. This latest project has led one local tour guide, who wished to remain unknown, to quip, “I said the motto of Vietnamese  tourism may change from ‘The Hidden Charm’ to the cable car nation or the beauty of cable cars.”

The Hidden Charm was a much maligned slogan from a misfired tourist campaign a few years ago. The unnamed source left some hope for reason, saying “If UNESCO raise concerns and send the PM a letter it will carry some weight… and if public pressure grows strong he might veto the project. I think the ball’s in the Prime Minister’s court.

Helen Clark was a reporter based in Vietnam for over six years and wrote for numerous outlets. She was also a travel magazine editor for four years in Hanoi.