Plans for another cable car in Vietnam’s UNESCO-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park have raised more questions than answers in a country where economic interests all too often eclipse limited environmental safeguards.
The most troubling question is, according to experts, whether the masses stand to benefit from a project that is being promoted in the name of economic development.
Authorities in the central province of Quang Binh proposed the cable car system across Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which UNESCO recognized as a global heritage site in 2003, at a meeting with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Friday.
Phuc said that although the idea has raised widespread eyebrows, he and government agencies “agree in principle” with the plan. He said the project must “not interfere with the heritage site nor be overexploited”, asking the culture and tourism ministry to assess the project’s possible impacts and consult UNESCO on the matter.
The cable car system is set to run 5.2 kilometers (3.2 miles) from a section of the Ho Chi Minh Highway to En (Swallow) Cave, which was catapulted into global fame when it was aired live on U.S. talk show Good Morning America in May 2015.
En Cave, a feeder to the world’s largest cave Son Doong, stretches 1,645 meters into the mountain and has been named one of the most captivating caves on earth by National Geographic. It is also believed to be the world’s third largest cave, according to CNN.
Phong Nha – Ke Bang is home to over 300 caves and grottoes that date back some 400 million years. Around 30 caves are now open to visitors, which has created a tourism boom and lifted the poor, war-torn province.
Supporters of the cable car say it will make it easier for tourists to explore the cave, giving local tourism a much-needed boost that would increase revenues and create jobs. They also say it affords opportunities for the elderly and disabled, and not just able-bodied people, to visit more remote beauty spots.
But those in the opposing camp say that the proposal’s much-touted benefits could pale in comparison to its possible drawbacks.
“The construction of large cable car base stations, towers, café-souvenir shops and parking lots will destroy the view,” said Tim Doling, a British author who has studied Vietnam’s history and tourism extensively. “The noise and disturbance associated with a heavy throughput of tourists can cause permanent damage to the natural landscape, wildlife and ecology.”
More importantly, “there are also serious questions to be answered about who ultimately benefits – the company which built and operates the cable car or the local community,” Doling said.
In Vietnam, the idea of building a huge infrastructure project designed to draw as many visitors as possible to a carefully protected ecological wonder has not gone down well with conservationists.
“Over the past 20 years, Vietnam’s tourism sector seems to have been led by a simple mantra – ‘big is beautiful’. But it rarely is,” said Mark Bowyer, a tourism expert in Vietnam who runs the website rustycompass.com. “Huge investments have been the prize most provinces have sought. Most other priorities have been neglected.”
In a country where local leaders are judged chiefly by how much their cities have grown, regardless of whether it is sustainable, local media have reported story after story in which cities and provinces often compete with each other by building airports, seaports or golf courses. This leads to a glut of infrastructure projects that only help to boost local gross domestic product thanks to construction, infrastructure, money flowing through banks and new employment in the short term.
Instead of focusing on projects that add value in the long term, local authorities are fixated on boosting GDP figures, analysts say. As a result, they ignore the environment and long-term planning.
“But worst of all is the systematic destruction of the country’s unique natural sites, the very reasons many foreigners visit the country, in the name of modernization and economic development,” Doling said.
“A slew of natural wonders are constantly destroyed or threatened across the country where local leaders are too preoccupied with short- sighted economic performance.”
It is not the first time Quang Binh has been caught up in the cable car controversy. Local authorities first suggested the construction of a similar system in 2014 when it unveiled plans to build a $212-million gondola lift into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, inside Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
Widespread opposition, including an online petition signed by thousands and concerns from UNESCO, eventually prompted the government to ask the province to scrap the project. The government has also guaranteed that no construction will take place in the entire cave system until at least 2030.
But it’s not just Quang Binh that is raising public hackles. Elsewhere in Vietnam conservationists lament that the country is sacrificing nature for tourism. Many Vietnamese tourist sites, including the world-famous Ha Long Bay and the country’s highest peak Fansipan, are already crisscrossed by cable cars.
Elsewhere in the world, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, it is standard practice to carry out a full environmental assessment before the construction of a cable car can start at a natural heritage site.
This ensures that they are built only in the least ecologically vulnerable areas with a design that is sensitive to the environment. It also imposes strict regulations about wastewater during both construction and operation.
“As there is so little transparency here about the way in which these cable cars are built and operated, it’s very difficult to know if such procedures are applied in Vietnam,” Doling said.
A 2015 report by Pact, an international environmental group, pointed to a raft of loopholes that have plagued Vietnam’s environmental assessment, marginalizing the masses in the decision-making process for public projects that otherwise directly affect their lives.
Although consultation requirements relate to contact with local governments, “there is no requirement for open public involvement and no requirement or guidance provided on more effective consultation methods,” the report said.
“While these bodies are considered by the government to be representative of communities, the hierarchical political system in Vietnam ensures they are often under pressure from higher levels of government to give their approval for the projects,” it said.
“They do not always accurately reflect the opinions and concerns of local communities, particularly disadvantaged or voiceless groups in Vietnamese society such as landless households or ethnic minority groups that can be the most significantly affected by projects.”
Conservationists say every country in the world faces trade-offs between conservation and development, but Vietnam has no safeguards in place against the most damaging actions.
Vietnam neither allows class-action suits nor enables non-affected parties to file public interest lawsuits. The laws also prevent public interest movements like environmental groups from intervening on behalf of the people affected.
“All too often, it seems the voices who are heard with regard to the trade-offs only seem to be the well-connected, politically powerful or rich people, and the benefits of the trade-offs seem to accrue to those powerful and wealthy people as well,” said Pamela McElwee, an assistant professor of human ecology at Rutgers University who has conducted extensive research on Vietnam’s protected areas.
A report by the World Bank and the Ministry of Planning and Investment acknowledged last year that in Vietnam, growth has to a large extent come at the expense of the environment.
“Growth in the past 25 years has imposed significant environmental costs,” the report said. “Rapid depletion of natural resources is a particular concern. Vietnam’s greenhouse gas emissions have grown the fastest in the region, while the environmental quality of its air, land and water has deteriorated considerably.”
Experts say conservation victories will remain scarce in Vietnam unless radical changes are made. Without a major shakeup, ordinary people will continue to bear the brunt of economic development.
“Up to now,” Doling said, “sadly it is certainly the case that economic interests in the exploitation of both natural and built heritage sites has tended to be given precedence over conservation concerns.”