Situated in Vietnam’s northwest region, Sapa has long been known as a destination for travellers keen to explore beautiful valley floors, hike up challenging mountains, or just soak up gorgeous views of sun-drenched terraced rice fields.
While the obviously booming tourist trade over the last few years has amazed many it hasn’t always been for the better. The once romantic town centre has been turned into ‘Touristville’, with new, badly-designed multi-storey hotels and guesthouses springing up like mushrooms after spring rain. The surrounding villages are full of local women selling cheap souvenirs, many of them made in China. For travellers seeking an encounter with an original tribal culture is can be a complete let down.
Unfortunately, Sapa is not the only place in Vietnam where poorly-managed tourism development has taken its toll. With mass tourism often comes environmental damage and pollution, cultural erosion, an increased strain on local resources, and the loss of natural habitat. Beautiful stretches of beach in Nha Trang are now overcrowded and the city has become a haven for scammers and touts. Mui Ne’s coast is polluted, with garbage washing up on its shores. Roads are being widened and hoardings hem in building sites on Phu Quoc Island, while grand resorts take up large swathes of prime beachfront in Danang.
With the winds of change sweeping all over Vietnam it is high time to talk about responsible tourism, as the advancement of the sector cannot be done at a cost to local livelihoods or the culture and environment. Most of the time the authenticity of a place, the genuine friendliness of its people, and a welcoming and hassle-free experience, rather than being milked for all they have, is what makes travellers return for a second visit to a country.
The idea of ‘responsible tourism’ has taken hold across the world along with the notion that tourism is a goose that ‘not only lays a golden egg but also fouls its own nest’. In recent years sustainability and responsibility in the travel business have progressed from a niche consideration to an industry-wide priority.
If eco-tourism focuses largely on nature-based activities and considers environmental factors central, responsible tourism, which encompasses all types of travel, acknowledges that local people live in the places we visit and must also benefit from the ‘smoke-free’ industry.
Realising the importance of responsible tourism, in 2009 a group of interested travel agencies, NGOs, and individuals formed RTC, The Responsible Travel Club of Vietnam, which is dedicated to building, practicing, and developing responsible travel for sustainable growth in tourism in all regions of the country.
But according to Mr Dang Xuan Son, Head of Product Development at RTC, ‘responsible tourism in Vietnam is still in its early stages with people only starting to understand the terminology.’ In fact, among the thousands of travel agencies and tour operators in the country only 22 are registered corporate members of RTC. Yet Mr Son is confident that there will be huge demand for responsible tourism in the future when more and more people realise that the ultimate way to continue the tourism industry is by conserving nature and the local traditional way of life.
Among the active players quickly spreading the concept, a number of NGOs have pioneered the first responsible tourism projects in the country. Bho Hoong, Dhroong, Ta Lu, and Ta Bhing villages in central Quang Nam province, where the majority of the Co Tu ethnic minority people reside, have staged a model of sustainable community-based tourism with support from the Japanese Foundation of International Development and Relief (FIDR). Visitors to the mountainous community have the chance to experience the distinctive Co Tu traditions, try their exclusive cuisine and enjoy homestays in stilt houses, and at the same time contribute to the reviving of historic crafts, from rattan weaving to unique ‘loomless’ brocade weaving.
In the Sapa region, the PATA Foundation from the Capilano University in Canada, in partnership with local associates, has initiated the ‘Vietnam Community Partnership Project’, aiming to develop sustainable tourism and retain the cultural integrity of the minority community in the villages of Ta Phin and Lao Chai. These include an appreciation of the value of and quality control over specific village products, and improvements to homestay opportunities and the quality and range of guide services. Success in this project saw it be a finalist in Wild Asia’s Responsible Tourism Awards for Most Inspiring Tourism Initiative this year.
Sustainable tourism, however, requires a commitment and effort to ‘do the right thing’ for the environment and the people from a diverse range of stakeholders in the industry, not only from tour operators and service providers but also from individuals. While many travellers do care about sustainability, few are willing to take action because the expected experience may be too compelling or the alternatives too difficult or expensive. For many people, though, the point has been reached point in our history when we can no longer take to the skies for that much-needed vacation without conscious thinking and being responsible when we travel.
Apart from the splashy mantra of ‘take only photographs, leave only footprints’, there are many simple things that you, as a solo traveller, can do to make tourism more sustainable and less destructive. The list is long but here are the five easiest:
- Stay in locally-owned accommodation and make sure to check their history of sustainable and responsible tourism practices. Even better, look for community-based lodgings, where people manage tourism their own way, both culturally and environmentally. This, of course, requires some research in advance, as many responsible tourism projects are not widely advertised as yet. You will, however, be rewarded by scenery, experience and local contacts that you otherwise could never hope to find.
- Nothing can be more intimate than food! You should soak in local culture by sampling native cuisine. History, spices, and the different ethnic influences are all evident when you sit down for a meal.
- Spend money on local souvenirs so that the money stays with their craft artisans and is reinvested in businesses and services in the community. Buying local gifts helps fuel employment while having the residual benefit of giving you something to take home.
- Reduce your consumption and waste when travelling. This is as simple as reusing your towel and bed linen, responsibly consuming water and electricity, and avoiding disposables and nylon bags. For this purpose, a foldable shopping pouch always comes in handy at all times.
- Participate in local activities by visiting local markets, engage in conversations with local residents, take an interest in how they make their living, and learn how to make the original arts and crafts of the region. On a more culturally-conscious journey, why not try reading a book or watching a movie from a local writer or filmmaker to gain a different perspective of the place you’re visiting, enhance your local knowledge, and have a more profound travel experience.