In July 2018, at the request of Quang Ninh Province, IUCN hired two consultants, Janet Mackay, Director of Tourism Recreation Conservation Consultants (TRC) and Wim Vrins, a solid waste management specialist, to advise on tourism and waste management in Ha Long Bay WHS.
After a 4-day site visit and meetings with government agencies in charge of site management, the mission found that while the geological values of the site are currently not threatened, with continued growth in visitor numbers and ineffective management of visitors and waste, the impacts on the site’s aesthetic values will cause a significant threat to its OUV.
While recognizing previous efforts by government to combat waste from floating villages and aquaculture, the consultants urged strong action to address plastic and waste water pollution from inland sources, boats, and other marine activities. They proposed substantive measures to improve visitor experience and minimize tourism impacts such as a centralized booking system that takes into account the carrying capacity of individual locations within the site.
The advisory mission identified a range of tourism and urban developments around the site that threaten its aesthetic values. These include large-scale residential and holiday accommodation, tourism attractions and support services. If a boundary realignment happens as part of the proposed WHS renomination to include the Cat Ba Archipelago, it will need to be accompanied by strict planning controls to ensure no further damage to the site’s natural beauty.
The mission concluded that Ha Long Bay Management Board lacks sufficient authority to carry out its day to day functions including enforcing environmental regulations. In that sense, it’s more of an advisory than a true management body.
Like many tourist destinations in Vietnam, rapid increases in visitor numbers and pollution have damaged the reputation of Ha Long Bay, especially in the eyes of foreigners. The 2017 Global Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report showed that while Vietnam’s natural and cultural attractions ranked 30th and 34th, its environmental sustainability ranked 129th out of 136 countries with very low scores for waste water treatment, coastal and forest conservation (0.1-0.2/7). This risks a marked reduction in high-paying international tourists with negative impacts on jobs and income generation. Given Vietnam’s natural beauty, coastal tourism should be an engine of economic growth but if done in ways that are environmentally wasteful, the engine risks stalling.