We invite readers to debate the pros and cons of a cable car project and mass tourism in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
*This debate was originally posted in August. We’re reposting it following the latest news on the cable car project, with a Quang Binh Province official saying that abandoning it will be a “waste of natural resources”.
Vietnam’s internet community was abuzz over the weekend following news that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has endorsed a controversial cable car project into the country’s world-renowned cave kingdom.
Unlike previous plans, this one does not include the world’s largest cave Son Doong. Instead it will run 5.2 kilometers (3.2 miles) from a section of the Ho Chi Minh Highway to En (Swallow) Cave, which was catapulted to global fame when it was aired live on U.S. talk show Good Morning America in May 2015.
En Cave, a feeder to the world’s largest cave Son Doong in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, stretches 1,645 meters into the mountain and has been named one of the most captivating caves on earth by National Geographic. It is also believed to be the world’s third largest cave, according to CNN.
The cable car controversy in Quang Binh started in 2014 when the province announced plans to build a $212-million gondola lift into Son Doong.
Widespread opposition, including an online petition signed by thousands and concerns from UNESCO, eventually prompted the government to ask the province to scrap the project.
So why is Quang Binh so intent on building a cable car system?
Supporters of the cable car say it will make it easier for tourists to explore the cave, giving local tourism a much-needed boost that would increase revenue and create jobs.
On average, Quang Binh residents earned VND28.72 million ($1,263) last year, much lower than the national average of $2,200. Natural disasters are common in the central province, and last year’s Formosa toxic spill left many in the fisheries and tourism sectors unemployed, spurring applications to work abroad. Tourism revenue in 2016 fell 12.9 percent from the previous year while the number of visitors plummeted by 29.4 percent.
Vietnamese officials say it could take central Vietnam a decade to completely recover from the environmental disaster.
Should Phong Nha – Ke Bang’s majestic caves be open to all?
Proponents of cable cars say they afford opportunities for the elderly and disabled, and not just able-bodied people, to visit more remote beauty spots.
Phong Nha – Ke Bang is home to over 300 caves and grottoes that date back some 400 million years. Around 30 caves are already open to visitors. You need to be an experienced trekker to visit the likes of Son Doong and En Cave, but there is already something for everyone. Paradise and Phong Nha caves are spectacular in their own ways and don’t require any trekking experience.
How much exploitation is too much?
Prime Minister Phuc said that although the idea has raised widespread eyebrows, he and government agencies “agree in principle” to the plan. He said the project must “not interfere with the heritage site nor be overexploited”, asking the culture and tourism ministry to assess the project’s possible impacts and consult UNESCO on the matter.
UNESCO has already voiced its concern over Phong Nha – Ke Bang’s integrity as a world heritage site, which “could be threatened by further uncontrolled tourism developments, notably by the proposed construction of a cable car and access roads.”
According to UNESCO, all projects need to ensure that “the natural landscape, geologic and geomorphic values, and key features such as primitive forests, caves, rivers and streams within the inscribed area remain intact.”
The national park is also included in the Special National Heritage List (2009), and the Special Use Forest system (1999). It is protected by a number of national laws and government decisions, which prohibit any action inside or outside the boundaries of the national park or a World Heritage property that may have a significant impact on heritage values.
Given that economic interests have all too often eclipsed limited environmental safeguards in Vietnam, critics have reasons to doubt the transparency of the environmental impact assessment for the cable car project.