Cruise boats in Ha Long Bay: what do the businesses say?

04 September 2014 | Article

The majestic limestone pillars rising out of the green waters of Ha Long Bay form one of Vietnam’s iconic landscapes and its greatest tourist attraction. Every day, hundreds of cruise boats shepherd thousands of visitors among the islands, cave systems, and small beaches that make up the bay. Threatening Ha Long Bay and its important tourism industry, however, is the growing problem of water pollution.

On July 31, the recently launched Ha Long Bay Alliance, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded partnership between IUCN and the Centre for Marinelife Conservation and Community Development (MCD), hosted a business consultation in Hanoi. Fourteen of the largest tour operators in Ha Long Bay met to discuss how the Alliance can assist government and business, particularly the cruise boat industry, reduce water pollution.

A growing number of visitors post online comments about the visibly polluted water that disfigures parts of the bay. These comments instantly reach a global audience and have the potential to reduce visitation and ultimately the profitability of the tourism sector. Thus, the cruise boat companies have a vested interest in a cleaner bay. However, based on the consultation, they are limited in their actions by government decision making that in some cases makes the situation worse. For example, because the companies are charged fees every time they cross a zone, they tend to cluster in a few sites, thereby concentrating pollution.

It was clear from the discussion that the businesses are willing to improve environmental performance. Specifically, they support an approach that combines tougher regulation, i.e., the compulsory adoption of certain standards that companies must conform to in order to operate, and certification, i.e., the voluntary adoption of certain standards that companies may choose to adopt for the benefit of their business. Compliance with these standards would be monitored by a third-party body to ensure that the system is transparent and meets international standards.

Feedback from the boat companies indicates that they are reluctant to make significant investments, for example in modern onboard waste water treatment technology, until there is greater policy stability. There is a feeling that government policy is unpredictable, which increases risk, and reduces the incentive to invest. Some of the smaller companies may need financial assistance to make the necessary investments.

Companies also expressed concern over increases in the fees they pay to take tourists into the bay. The issue is not the fees themselves but where they go. For example, the government could hire boats to travel around the bay and pump waste water off the cruise boats and ship it to land. Another approach would be to build a central plant to process waste water from all the boats. In both cases, the government would need to reinvest some of millions of dollars it receives a year in entrance fees in improved environmental management.

The key message from the consultation is that both business and government need to cooperate to make a difference. The current situation is characterized by suspicion and uncertainty. It is clear that if the government operated in a more transparent and business-friendly way, the larger companies would be willing to invest in the latest technology. This is the kind of public-private partnership that the Alliance was set up to foster.