Nhan Dan recently published a Vietnamese-language story calling for an immediate end to the organisation of parties in the caverns at Halong Bay, which revealed typical shortcomings in the management of World Heritage Sites in Vietnam.
But we must look no further than some limitations of the current management model to uncover the main cause of such confusion.
Lack of sustainable strategies
Each locality in Vietnam that has a World Heritage Site recognised by UNESCO also devotes special resources to the development of tourism and a unique “brand” of culture. However, the management of Vietnam’s eight World Cultural and Natural Heritage sites have yielded varied results.
Regarding numbers of visitors to the sites, the most recent statistics show that only four out of eight heritage sites exceeded one million tourist visits in 2015.
These were the Trang An Complex in Ninh Binh Province (five million tourist visits), Ha Long Bay in Quang Ninh Province (2.5 million), the Hue Royal Heritage Complex in Thua Thien–Hue Province (2 million) and the ancient town of Hoi An in Quang Nam Province (1.1 million).
The other four heritage sites received a much more modest number of visitors.
These were Phong Nha–Ke Bang National Park in the central province of Quang Binh (740,000), the My Son Sanctuary in Quang Nam Province (282,000), the Thang Long Imperial Citadel in Hanoi (120,000) and the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty in Thanh Hoa Province (over 80,000).
It can be seen from the varied numbers of tourist visits that some heritage sites have not fully realised their potential and their value has not been sufficiently promoted to tourists.
For example, a survey by French experts determined that the Thang Long Imperial Citadel in Hanoi, with an area of 18.3 hectares and a rich millenarian culture, could welcome 2.4 million tourist visits a year—fifteen times more than the present number—and the figure of 80,000 visitors to the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty seems inconsistent with the unique value of the huge stone complex.
From another perspective, the varied numbers of tourists also reveal differences in the characteristics of each heritage site.
For example, Halong Bay, the Trang An Complex and the Hue Royal Heritage Complex seem to be more popular to tourists because of their architecture and landscapes, while the styling of the Thang Long Imperial Citadel, the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty and the My Son Sanctuary as “ruins” can be seen as a disadvantage that need to be overcome.
These differences, which have been analysed at a number of conferences, will underlie investment strategies aimed at attracting tourists to each locale.
For the Thang Long Imperial Citadel and the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty, a variety of ideas have been mulled, including the organisation of activities to support tourism, the connection of heritage sites with other local sites and even the architectural renovation of the sites (such as a plan to reconstruct Kinh Thien Palace at the Thang Long Imperial Citadel).
Meanwhile, at the other heritage sites, plans to manage visitors should also be set out. From the perspective of tourism, many locales with world heritage sites take the number of visiting tourists as the most important measure of success.
But, according to Prof. Luong Hong Quang from the Vietnam Institute of Culture and Arts Studies, there is a serious lack of necessary surveys and scientific research on the effects of tourism on the sites and appropriate measures to preserve the status quo.
In fact, even though they have welcomed large numbers of visitors, questions have been raised about the appropriateness of the methods many heritage sites are employing to attract tourists.
The recent organisation of a dinner service in caverns at Ha Long Bay has been met with harsh reactions from some experts, because such activities can cause damage to the environmental or geological structure of the rock there.
Similarly, in 2014, a plan to build a cable car leading into Son Doong Cave in Phong Nha–Ke Bang also sparked fierce debate.
Prof. Pham Trung Luong, former Deputy Director of the Institute of Tourism Research and Development, said that in many countries, when so many tourists flock to a heritage site that it may cause damage to the site or its environment, management will consider different approaches to resolving the problem, such as increasing the fare so as to deter visits by those least inclined to respect the site or developing more tourism sites in the surrounding area to ease the pressure from large numbers of tourists.
It should also be mentioned that world heritage sites in Vietnam are being managed with different models.
Specifically, four heritage sites, viz. the Hue Royal Heritage Complex, the Trang An Complex, the Thang Long Imperial Citadel and Phong Nha–Ke Bang National Park, are currently run by management units under the provincial People’s Committees.
Three heritage sites are managed at the local level, viz. the My Son Sanctuary (Duy Xuyen District, Quang Nam Province), the ancient town of Hoi An (the Hoi An City People’s Committee, Quang Nam Province) and Ha Long Bay (the Ha Long City People’s Committee, Quang Ninh Province).
Meanwhile, the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty is a special case managed by the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Thanh Hoa Province.
Although they function on different levels, all of these management models share a common point: overlapping duties and a lack of strict delimitation of the functions of local agencies.
And, in some cases, this collaborative relationship is even contradictory and inconsistent.
UNESCO’s recommendations for Halong Bay are one typical example. Since 2009, this heritage site has continually been listed in recommendations on incomplete management and conservation, especially considering urban expansion and coal mining that have caused environmental issues.
However, the solutions to these problems may involve issues of urban planning and coal mining (the chief industry in the locale).
At workshops, the neccesity of establishing a flexible, scientific and effective management model has been mentioned as a first step towards the rational exploitation of world heritage sites in Vietnam.
Accordingly, this model itself needs a strong-enough legal framework to give real power to the management board, while at the same time having the flexibility to be applicable to a variety of different situations, depending on the conditions of each heritage site.
Some international experts have suggested the establishment of a World Heritage Committee in Vietnam, a model popular in many countries around the world.
This committee is an interministerial body with the participation of central and local State bodies, such as the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism; the Ministry of Education and Training; the Ministry of Home Affairs; the Ministry of Justice; and the Vietnam National Commission for UNESCO.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is also drafting a decree on the management of world heritage sites in Vietnam to submit to the Prime Minister for consideration and approval.
This legal document is expected to yield practical results in preserving and promoting the value of world heritage sites in Vietnam.
However, even members of the drafting board are not so optimistic about the actual impact of this legal document due to problems in the management activities at world heritage sites, especially the conflict between the interests of development and the task of conservation.
Some cultural experts recommend that locales with world heritage sites give top priority to the preservation of the sites and the exploitation of their potential and value.
This means that, to some extent, the issues of industrial development, urban transportation and urban expansion should be given secondary priority.