Caving Into Pressure: The Quang Binh Controversy


Vietnam is home to a kingdom of caves, including the world’s largest cave, Son Doong. Its cave system, which is an official UNESCO Heritage Site, has been attracting eager tourists and seasoned trekkers in limited numbers. But things are going to change as Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has recently endorsed a 5.2 kilometre cable car project into En (Swallow) Cave, which will open its doors to mass tourism.

En Cave, a feeder cave to Son Doong, stretches 1,645 metres into the mountain and has been named one of the most captivating caves on earth by National Geographic; according to CNN, it is the third largest cave in the world.

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Although this new 5.2-kilometre cable car system, which runs from a section of Ho Chi Minh Highway to En Cave, will not actually include Son Doong in its route, it has already provoked debate among Vietnamese netizens.

The Quang Binh Controversy

This development is reminiscent of the cable car controversy that first started in 2014, when the province announced plans to build a US$212 million gondola lift into Son Doong.

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That incident sparked widespread opposition, including an online petition that was signed by thousands and eventually reached UNESCO, which prompted the government to ask the province to scrap the project.

So why is it happening again?

The Reasons

The main reason may be tourism, but beneath that layer, it is also a matter of economics and survival.

On average, Quang Binh residents earned an annual income of US$1,263 last year. To put this in perspective, the national average annual salary is US$2,200.

The province has also been hit multiple times by natural disasters such as storms, floods and landslides, and last year’s Formosa toxic spill dealt a devastating blow to the fisheries and tourism sectors, leaving many unemployed. Tourism revenue in 2016 fell 12.9 percent from the previous year, as the number of visitors fell by 29.4 percent.

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Vietnamese officials announced that it could take central Vietnam a decade to completely recuperate from the environmental disaster.

The Dilemma

The question becomes whether the government should boost tourism revenue to help the residents of Quang Binh find its feet or preserve the integrity of the caves as a natural landscape and world heritage site.

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Prime Minister Phuc said that although the idea has raised eyebrows, he and government agencies agree that the project must “not interfere with the heritage site, nor be overexploited”, and he has asked the culture and tourism ministry to asses the project’s possible impacts and consult UNESCO on the matter.

Commercial interests may have overridden limited environmental safeguards on a few occasions in Vietnam, such as during the illegal logging case in Son Tra peninsula last year, which caused critics to question the transparency of the environmental impact of this project.

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