Don’t Go To Ha Long Bay: A Lesson in Unsustainable Tourism

Don’t Go To Ha Long Bay: A Lesson in Unsustainable Tourism

If you think of Vietnam, one of the first images that you will likely picture is Ha Long Bay. Jagged karst peaks ascending from azure waters, with passenger boats slowly chugging around the otherworldly landscape. Locals in their conical hats rowing past in boats teeming with mounds of bananas and rambutans. Morning mist that slowly sweeps away with the sun to reveal hidden coves and labyrinthine waterways. This is what tourism agencies will try to sell to you as the experience of Ha Long Bay. It’s not like this.

I visited Vietnam as part of a university study tour that focused on visiting development organisations and evaluating their effectiveness. We also visited Ha Long Bay to experience the other side of the coin: mass tourism. Keeping this in mind, I had my critical academic hat on when we ventured to Ha Long Bay, and it was overwhelmingly disappointing for me.

Approximately 12 million tourists visited Vietnam in this year to date, and the majority of visitors have Ha Long Bay right at the top of their itinerary. However, Ha Long Bay is the poster child for the lesson of over-tourism and unsustainable tourism in Southeast Asia.

The supposedly picturesque waterways are choked with countless tourist barges and kayaks. Boats trail after one another in a line, preventing you from ever entertaining the illusion that you are enjoying a paradise alone. Time spent out kayaking or in row-boats between the islands is impeded by many other tourists up in your space. When you visit the famous caves, the sheer amount of visitors pushes you along at a constant, slow pace, not allowing you to stop and take in the geological formations.

The entire experience left me feeling stressed out and disappointed in this so-called ‘must-see’ attraction. Other than the less than ideal personal experience, Ha Long Bay is creating a variety of economic and environmental issues in the local area. It’s simply not worth the damage it is currently creating. Don’t go to Ha Long Bay.

Mass tourism in Ha Long Bay is not really benefiting the local economy.

rice paddies in Vietnam

One of the ways that we often justify visiting somewhere controversial is by rationalising that at least it’s helping the local economy. In the case of Ha Long Bay, unsustainable tourism is doing more harm than good.

Unfortunately,‘the bulk of tourism is made up of single-visit, short-stay visitors placing a maximum demand on the resources but making a minimum economic contribution’ (Source).

Visitors spend money on all-inclusive guided tours that benefit one company and usually no one in the local community. Those employed by these tour agencies often suffer from insecure employment that is seasonal and temporary, and most tour operators are from Hanoi and not the local area (Source). This means that actual economic contribution to the local area and its people is very low.

The influx of mass tourism also has negative impacts on the local people by driving up real estate prices and the cost of living. This is particularly harmful because it pushes locals out of their homes and towards the more affordable periphery of the town. The peripheral areas have fewer services, and surveys have shown resentment among the local people (Source).

The issue with poorly managed and unsustainable mass tourism is that it does benefit very few people in a meaningful way. It usually stimulates the national economy and provides money to large tour operators, but has negative impacts on the people in the local area. Unless you are using a completely local company for your trip to Ha Long Bay, your tourist dollar is doing more harm than good.

Unsustainable tourism has created a wealth of environmental issues.

A concrete path leading towards thick jungle and palm trees in Vietnam. Rice fields sit to the left of the path.

Ha Long Bay is really suffering for the sheer amount of tourists that it receives every year. The bay has to be routinely dredged (clearing the seabed of obstructions) to allow the vessels to pass through. Unfortunately, the excess sediment is usually dumped on the shore, which damages the mangroves and coral reefs. The influx of tourism also means huge amounts of waste, and with inefficient waste removal systems, much is being dumped directly into the bay.

‘Long term, perhaps even irreversible, damage is being inflicted on Ha Long Bay’s environmental integrity and World Heritage values’ (Source).

The damage also extends to the famous ‘show caves’, where tourists are led through in an ever-shuffling procession line. The caves have been reshaped for easier access and several lights have been installed to illuminate the karst shapes. This lighting is problematic because it increases the growth of algae and fungus near the lights, which damages the karst over time. The constant movement of tourists also introduces more heat, light, and humidity, which changes the micro-climate of the caves (Source).

Ironically, the amount of people who are flocking to see the beauty of Ha Long Bay may be the reason that in the future it is no longer a natural wonder. The area cannot cope with the amount and the nature of the unsustainable tourism that it receives.

Don’t Go to Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay is sold as the highlight of Vietnam, but the reality is that there are so many more beautiful places to explore that aren’t suffocating from tourism. The experience feels rushed, crowded, and nowhere near the idyllic day out that is promised in the brochures. On top of that, the levels of tourism are creating economic and environmental damage that may revoke Ha Long Bay’s status of a World Heritage Site in the future.The government needs to step in and enforce more sustainable tourism practices, and likely a cap on daily visitors. As it exists today, similar karst environments are better experienced in other places around Southeast Asia. Ultimately, Ha Long Bay is not worth it.

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By | 2018-01-11T22:46:37+00:00 December 26th, 2017|ethical travel|21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. John Franklin December 26, 2017 at 3:56 pm - Reply

    We went to Halong Bay in 2012 and it felt bad enough then. It seemed 90% of tourists did 1 night cruises and at least by doing a 2 night cruise we got the chance to visit and support more of the local economy.

    • Her Travel Therapy December 28, 2017 at 8:01 pm - Reply

      That sounds preferable. I unfortunately didn’t get to choose my Ha Long Bay trip because it was organised as part of my study tour.

  2. byronicone December 27, 2017 at 2:55 am - Reply

    I’m wondering if self-guided tours or with a local guide could be had around sunrise. I did this in Tikal and there might have been 30 other people in the whole park. I haven’t done any research, but I fear the options won’t be so good after reading your article. Thanks for taking a research based approach and citing your sources!

    • Her Travel Therapy December 28, 2017 at 8:00 pm - Reply

      Possibly it could be done, it would definitely be preferable to the extreme busyness during the day. Thanks, I re-purposed an old university essay and made it more blog-friendly!

  3. Hannah December 31, 2017 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    Aww, this makes me so sad. I hate crowds, so my biggest fear in visiting Ha Long Bay was that it would be overcrowded – and your article confirms that. The biggest thing for me is the impact on the environment – all for a few pretty pictures! I heard about refuse being dumped into the bay, and the water being horrible to swim in due to all the rubbish and pollution. It is such a great shame that regulation hasn’t been introduced, but I understand why that isn’t done in Southeast Asia – money talks. What a great shame the money isn’t going to where it would be most valued. Great illumination!

    • Her Travel Therapy January 1, 2018 at 7:28 pm - Reply

      So much of Southeast Asia has become strangled by tourism that it doesn’t know how to handle. The emphasis was too much on making money and not on a long term positive outcome. I’m hopeful it can be improved, but with a lot of time and passionate organisations.

  4. Elaine Masters January 1, 2018 at 12:03 am - Reply

    Thanks for the warning. Of course I’ve heard of the site but it’s heart breaking to learn of the numbers. I too have thought that tourism helped locals and look for that in my travels. Sad though to see greed lead to dredging, and the mud problems, the algae in the caves. Managed visits are the only way or pricing the tours so high that few can visit! What have we created?!

    • Her Travel Therapy January 1, 2018 at 7:27 pm - Reply

      Too much of a good thing ruins it! I think maybe a cap on numbers and only letting local agencies with sustainable practices run tours, but that’s very wishful thinking.

  5. Nathalie Caty January 1, 2018 at 8:47 am - Reply

    Really! I was there during the summer of 2016 but didn’t get a chance to explore because of the typhoon and we had to leave immediately. I definitely agree there are more places in Vietnam to visit. My favorite was Hoi An

    • Her Travel Therapy January 1, 2018 at 7:25 pm - Reply

      I definitely don’t think you missed out from not being able to go.

  6. Mei January 2, 2018 at 2:05 am - Reply

    We visited Vietnam in 2014 and also spend a couple of days in Halong Bay. Somehow it was not crowded at all, and I must admit that we had a rather wonderful experience. It was interesting to talk to the locals about the place’s history and explore the surrounding archaeological sites. Would we go there again? Yes, but to meet the locals and explore more archaeological sites, not to do the cruise or what tourists do (or are supposed to do). As an archaeologist, fighting to preserve ancient sites is what I do on a daily basis (no, what we really want is not to do excavations, but to preserve the sites by letting them stay in the ground!). From my experience, the only way to avoid unsustainable tourism and to preserve heritage or natural sites, is if the local government and heritage sites’ services/associations do something serious about it. They could create a law to close down the whole bay, so that no one can go there except for local fishermen and specialists/researchers (like in Lascaux). Otherwise, people will keep going there. The decisions lie in the hands of the politicians. But having visited Vietnam, I don’t think that sustainable tourism is in the country’s political agenda. They might have started to talk about sustainable tourism and the need to better the environment. But I guess that in the end, money matters more than the environment, not only in Vietnam, but in most countires of the world. Let’s hope that things will change for the better in 2018.

    • Her Travel Therapy January 2, 2018 at 10:34 am - Reply

      I imagine there’s a lot to interest an archaeologist in that region! The cruise itself is definitely a lowlight because of the crowding. I’d love to see the government step in like that, but I agree with you that it’s very unlikely to happen. The emphasis is on promoting the country, and generating revenue. Maybe if the global conversation becomes heavily focused on sustainable tourism and people can adjust their mindsets for travelling, then countries can be pressured into making those kinds of changes.

  7. Valerie Wheatley January 2, 2018 at 2:45 am - Reply

    This was a great read – very informative (and sad!). I’ve never been to Vietnam but it’s been high on my list for a long time. And of course I’ve seen the beautiful photos of Ha Long Bay – it always seems so peaceful and relaxing, nothing like how you described it! Definitely taking this off of my bucket list now that I’ve read about how much damage tourism is doing to the area. Do you have other spots in Vietnam that you’d recommend visiting instead of Ha Long Bay? Thanks for writing!

    • Her Travel Therapy January 2, 2018 at 10:32 am - Reply

      The photos must be taken at dawn or in off season I assume, because I don’t know how else they would shoot it without all the boats. I unfortunately didn’t get to explore much of Vietnam because I was on a study tour and had regimented activities, but one of my highlights was the village of Mai Chau. You can stay with locals in a longhouse in rural Vietnam and experience their way of life, wake up at sunrise, and appreciate the nature.

  8. Kerri January 2, 2018 at 7:01 am - Reply

    I understand the detail behind dredging which is definitely not the best solution and also agree with the issue around driving up property prices which is an issue in many parts of the world. I totally disagree though about it always being a tourist-chocked environment. If you do some careful research (and I note you’re part of an organised study tour) there are companies who go out of their way to make sure this isn’t the experience. Yes, we paid a lot of money for it, but there were only 20 of us the whole time on the boat, we went for 4 days, to enable us to get right out of the usual day tripper zone, and we saw no other boats, other than its sister boat the whole time, util we came back towards the port. We talked to locals, had boat rides with them where we passed money directly to them, bought items at their shops and helped the company people pick up rubbish that had floated in. Many of those employed on the boat were indeed locals and some were from other parts of Vietnam. I agree that the Vietnamese will need to consider very carefully their future strategies on how they treat the environment in general but as always, I prefer people to be able to make up their own mind, without being told not to go somewhere.

    • Her Travel Therapy January 2, 2018 at 10:30 am - Reply

      Yeah unfortunately I didn’t get the choice of which tour I could take because it was organised through my university. I’m glad that you had a more positive experience, but overwhelmingly the kind of tourism in the area is wreaking environmental damage and not benefiting the local community. I’m glad that there are more local and sustainable organisations doing tours in the area, and I hope that they can become more dominant in the industry. People need to hear both sides of the story to be able to make up their minds accurately on whether an experience is right for them.

  9. Jenna January 2, 2018 at 6:39 pm - Reply

    We’ve been researching a trip to Vietnam, and while I would love to see Ha Long Bay and all its beauty, the more I read about it the more I feel like we want to leave it off our itinerary. It’s so sad to see an environment that isn’t taken care of and we’d hate to add to the destruction. In addition to the harm being done to the environment and local economy, it sounds like the crowds would be too much to handle too. If we do end up visiting, we will definitely keep the local economy in mind and try to find a local organizer or spend more time in the area to help support the locals. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this!

    • Her Travel Therapy January 4, 2018 at 9:57 am - Reply

      It could be feasible if you went in the off season and chose a purely local company, but you’d have to put a lot of thought and research into it.

  10. Paige January 3, 2018 at 7:48 am - Reply

    Finally, someone else who isn’t all about Ha Long Bay! I felt like I was the only one who didn’t think it was worth all the hype. Plus, now that I know that it’s so unsustainable, that makes me dislike this destination even more! I hated how much pollution I saw and how the caves were altered, but this was extra-enlightening. I’ll be sharing this on Facebook to let other travelers know!

    • Her Travel Therapy January 4, 2018 at 9:56 am - Reply

      A lot of my group didn’t enjoy it, but we were all students of International Development so we are used to turning a critical eye to tourism practices. Thanks!

  11. Mizhelle January 3, 2018 at 1:37 pm - Reply

    Relevant post. I’m glad people are writing about this. I’ve never been to Vietnam but I’ll keep this in mind when I get the chance to visit the country.

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