Browse through travel guides under ‘Best Places to Visit’ and the Top 10 attractions are likely to include at least a few world heritage sites. The reason a destination becomes a world heritage site is also the reason why millions of tourists visit each and every year. In visiting these cultural and historic places travellers seek opportunities to engage with and understand the lives of others - where they live, what their history is, and how their society evolved over time.
Heritage tourism is booming all around the world. A recent study showed that the Top 50 global heritage listings, which include Machu Picchu in Peru and the Great Wall of China, generate $17.4 billion for the economy of the host countries, making it one of the largest and fastest growing sectors in today’s tourism industry.
Following a heritage tourism trail typically involves travelling to places that in some ways represent or celebrate an area or community or its people’s history and identity. Such tourism encompasses tangible elements, such monuments, cathedrals, castles, historic buildings, and archaeological ruins and relics, and intangible elements such as music, dance, language, religion, cuisine, and traditional arts.
If the title ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’ is a much-desired marker of quality tourism, then Vietnam possess huge potential resources. With 54 different ethnic minority groups and a history dating back more than 4,000 years, the country has a wealth of cultural and historic tourism options waiting to be revealed. At the backbone of its cultural tourism are eight UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritages. While Halong Bay and Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park are spectacular gifts from Mother Nature, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long-Hanoi, the Hue Monuments, Hoi An Ancient Town, and the My Son Sanctuary open an historic window on the glorious past of old empires. Meanwhile, the Trang An Eco-Tourism Complex in Ninh Binh province is renowned for amazing boat trips through stunning limestone caves, and the Ho Citadel in Thanh Hoa province showcases grand royal inner walls and gates surrounded by a fertile rural landscape.
As testament to Vietnam’s strong cultural offerings, these heritage sites are robust drivers of local economies, increasing revenues and creating more jobs and business opportunities.
Halong Bay now welcomes more than 2 million visitors every year with tourism revenue reaching into the tens of millions of dollars and has increased continually since it received world heritage recognition. Some 1.76 million tourists spent time in Hoi An last year, generating nearly $105.2 million in total revenue. As an emerging destination, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park welcomes over 250,000 visitors and earns $1.12 million every year.
Besides attracting huge numbers of foreign and domestic travellers, heritage tourism also plays an important role in underpinning and nurturing the country’s unique culture, identity, and way of life.
Once the country’s capital during the last imperial dynasty and boasting gorgeous royal tombs, Hue also bears a rich history of arts and craftsmanship. The silk, ceramics, embroidery, paper, and lacquer ware made by its artisans were among the finest in the country. But the city’s craft heritage was woefully neglected for a long period and has only made a comeback in recent years thanks to the boost in tourism. Visitors to the city can now not only encounter famous royal court music and sample mouth-watering cuisine but also experience a diverse range of restored crafts in surrounding villages, from pottery in Phuoc Tich, wood sculpture in My Xuyen, and embroidery in Duc Thanh to conical hats in Phu Cam.
The charming ancient town of Hoi An has also been a success story in harnessing the power of tourism to develop its craft sector. The sheer number of foreign tourists to the old port and the growing quest for quality, identity, and originality in artisan products has seen the revival of local crafts that were previously on the verge of extinction, such as carpentry in Kim Bong village, bamboo and rattan weaving in Cam Thanh, terra cotta making in Thanh Ha, and mat weaving in Triem Tay.
Seen as an attractive economic revitalisation strategy, heritage tourism in Vietnam, paradoxically, also faces unintended consequences from mass tourism, poor management, and over exploitation. Except for the quiet Ho Citadel, where there is an absolute absence of fanfare, most heritage sites in Vietnam are becoming overcrowded and struggling to find a balance between preservation and economic development.
After a road expansion project in Hue cut across a mountain that is integral to the ‘feng shui’ of Emperor Khai Dinh’s tomb, the local government was directed to take drastic measures to better protect its imperial capital or else the heritage site may lose its UNESCO World Heritage Site title.
Hoi An, meanwhile, has become inundated by a flood of tourism and foreign money, and the dark side of consumerism is steadily turning the old town into a tourist trap. The natural beauty of Halong Bay has had to address an acute environmental problem. Major flooding swept through parts of Vietnam’s northern provinces recently and threatened to contaminate the Bay with pollution from inundated coalmines, while the response from authorities was anything but timely.
Lacking a proper management mechanism, many beloved places on Vietnam’s heritage trail are at risk of being trampled upon and damaged.
The country is proud to be home to many world heritage sites but connecting these bright dots to form a long-term heritage trail remains a challenge for policymakers, tour operators, and communities.
More than ever before, linking the resources Vietnam has, protecting past legacies, and preserving its heritage gems are the only sustainable way to safeguard the future.