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.
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.
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.