Killing the goose

It’s imperative that community-based tourism be properly planned to ensure that the original attraction isn’t ruined

By LE DIEM on March 08,2019 08:36 AM

Killing the goose

PHOTOS:THUY DUONG

The old houses were to be restored and the village was to become a new hot spot like the Old Quarter in Hanoi or Hoi An ancient town in central Quang Nam province, attracting millions of tourists every year and earning higher incomes from tourism.

Visitors to Duong Lam ancient village in Hanoi’s Son Tay town may be astonished to see old houses with bare brick walls and red tiled roofs on small and quiet alleys joining wells and green gardens in painting a charming and peaceful picture of typical northern countryside architecture and space just an hour from the center of the capital with its high-rise buildings and choking traffic.

But in May 2013, hundreds of villagers signed a petition to have its national relic recognition revoked so they could again lead normal lives and restore their hundred-year-old houses as needed rather than being tied by strict construction regulations. But their request was not approved. Many people, it seemed, realized that being a well-known heritage site could actually be a major inconvenience. Some families in Duong Lam are still living in small dilapidated houses, hoping the government will agree to some sort of restoration. Since then, there are many projects and plans to restore the village’s temples, houses and relics have been announced.

Duong Lam is just one of many examples of the negative aspects that can accompany community-based tourism (CBT) in Vietnam.

The ancient village has a history of about 1,200 years, with many houses dating back up to four centuries. When it became the first ancient village in the country to be recognized as a national relic in 2006, residents were excited about the major changes expected. The old houses were to be restored and the village was to become a new hot spot like the Old Quarter in Hanoi or Hoi An ancient town in central Quang Nam province, attracting millions of tourists every year and earning higher incomes from tourism.

Killing the goose

Thirteen years on, however, only 17 out of the village’s 956 old houses have been restored, according to Duong Lam relic management board. As a national relic, residents aren’t permitted to simply restore their homes as needed and instead must rely on government projects. As this can take a long time, thousands of Duong Lam residents are forced to live under broken roof tiles, hiding under raincoats or tarpaulins when it rains.

Though open to the public and hosting many visitors, Duong Lam has yet to be fully developed into a tourist site. There is a significant lack of tourist maps, signs, toilets, or food and drink and souvenir shops. Despite being a nice attraction, most visitors only stay a couple of hours then leave after they’ve seen all the ancient houses. Only 10 per cent of people with an ancient house earn income from tourism, according to the 2018 statistics of the relic management board.

While the restoration projects in Duong Lam stagnates, the one in Triem Tay village, Dien Ban district in Quang Nam province ended in October 2018 after three years. The CBT model, with consultancy from UNESCO and the ILO, was piloted in the area in 2015, featuring walking tours around the village and its ancient houses, pagodas, and dirt roads, and offering the chance to experience the farming work of local people, such as ploughing fields, planting vegetables, fishing from row boats, and cooking. It became the standard model for other villages to develop CBT.

After the pilot finished and the project was handed over to the village’s CBT cooperative and residents, it soon closed. The cooperative blamed it on a lack of human resources, low revenue from falling tourist numbers being insufficient to cover costs, and a lack of cooperation from residents. Residents, meanwhile, said all the revenue went to the cooperative while they received nothing. Prior to Triem Tay, nearby My Son and Tra Nhieu villages also saw CBT projects fail, primarily due to the fact that local residents benefitted less than expected.

Similar stories can be found in northwestern areas such as Dien Bien, Son La, Lao Cai and Hoa Binh provinces where CBT was also set up and welcomed a number of tourists initially but then dwindled.

CBT remains a relatively new concept around Vietnam. The lack of reasonable and comprehensive long-term plans for both preservation and development and effective cooperation between authorities and residents results in myriad issues, according to Professor Van Huy from the Cultural Heritage Association of Vietnam.

Moreover, a lack of knowledge and experience among local authorities and residents has led to failure, he added, while insufficient research was conducted on offering different tourism products based on diverse local cultures. “For example, some built dozens of CBT villages in a small area with only one or two ethnic minority groups that had similar cultures,” he said. “Therefore, after visiting one or two villages, visitors didn’t need to go elsewhere because it was all the same.”

In many other places, CBT develops spontaneously, offered by local people, especially at popular tourist sites or new emerging destinations. This creates a level of competitiveness among residents, turning the friendly and warm local culture into something quite different. Benjamin Sabatier, a tourist from France, said that he liked Sapa and its stunning landscapes and the colorful brocade costumes of its ethnic minorities, but he was constantly being annoyed by groups of people trying to sell him something. “They followed me everywhere despite me saying I didn’t want anything. Eventually, I bought something to get some peace,” he said.

Unprofessional attitudes like this can create an ugly image of a place and have a negative effect on the development of CBT. Sadly, the fresh and clean environment is often ruined by quick and unruly development.

Two examples are Den and Ho villages around Sapa. After CBT models were introduced, both villages appeared on tourist maps as new and interesting destinations, where visitors could stay in local people’s homes among terrace fields and surrounded by mountains and forests. Every year, each village welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors.

As the number of tourists increased, hydroelectric plants and more hotels and resorts were built near the villages. The dust and noise of the construction killed the fresh and clean environment and drove tourists away.

Killing the goose

Thi Tem, a resident living next to La Ve Waterfall in Ho village, used to welcome guests every day, who would stay for the nice views and special herbal baths of the Dao ethnic minority. When the hydroelectric plant got underway, however, the waterfall was reduced to a trickle and tourists stopped coming.

Seeing a similar problem, Vu Thanh Minh, who pioneered the eco-lodge model on Co To Island near Ha Long Bay, with wooden huts on the beach, decided to just walk away. His eco-lodge was popular among tourists and received an increased number after a while, earning him a handy income and benefitting local people who sold food and drinks. It was also studied by other travel companies as a new and creative model in sea tourism.

After three years, though business was good, he decided to close it because other similar models were being built, destroying a lot of the surrounding forest and polluting the sea. “I love Co To for its pristine beauty and introduced the model to allow more people to get to know about the island and bring something to the local area,” said Minh, who studied tourism and worked in the sector for many years. “I didn’t expect it would lead to this problem. I expected to offer a tourism product that both myself and others could get something out of, but I never intended to be part of destroying what Mother Nature created. When I realized it, I simply couldn’t continue.” He now provides homestay services instead, which offer guests both a private stay and a public space for them to meet with their hosts and learn about the local life and culture without having any negative effect on the environment.

With more people conducting responsible business like Minh, CBT could develop more in the future. Long-term sustainable development, however, requires limitations on rapid and unwieldly development and a planning policy of large scale to ensure effective cooperation and shared benefits for residents and travel enterprises creating attractive products based on the local culture, according to Professor Huy.

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