“Water drips from a gaping scar in the ceiling over 100 meters above us. A spectacular sunbeam starts to creep down the side of the serrated cliffs. The shrill call of birds and macaque monkeys echoes off the limestone, drifting in from the unseen world beyond the skylight.”-Jarryd Salem, CNN
The Son Doong cave, residing within the Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park, is a magnificent wonder of nature, a wonderland of stalagmite pillars and underground forest. But it is inaccessible as it is accessible. Located in the heart of the jungle, only a handful of expert explorers have been able to reach it. In October 2014, however, a plan was proposed by Sun Group to help bring access to these remote regions: a system of cable car spanning 10.6 kilometers over the national park with a station only 300 meters away from the entrance of Son Doong.
–Tourism in Son Doong: an untapped treasure–
As Son Doong’s popularity grows, so is the local economy. The once sleepy town of Phong Nha is now a hub for adventurers everywhere wishing to visit not only Son Doong but also the many other cave systems in the area. The regional tourism industry has flourished in recent time, bringing jobs and opportunities to one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam. It is not hard to see how the project and its massive attraction to tourists would revive the small forgotten region. A research by Charles Darwin University (Australia) showed how tourism development in the remote Gulf of Carpentaria has led to more jobs, better infrastructure and overall higher standard of living. Similarly, the cable car plan seems to be a beneficial development, not only for new tourists coming to see the incredible caves but also providing a chance to escape a life of hardships for locals. Ha Van Sieu, Deputy Director of Tourism, further asserted that our natural heritage should be cherished and put to use for the public good. Indeed, he argued: “The natural heritage would be abandoned without any guests, like diamonds and golds under the sea would merely be stones ”
–Son Doong projects: a future disaster?–
The project was, however, not without its controversy. A poll made by VNExpress demonstrated massive public disapproval with 98 percents voted against building a cable car system in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. UNESCO has also voiced their concern over the Phong Nha- Ke bang’s integrity as a world heritage site, which could be threatened by further uncontrolled tourism development.
Son Doong cave and the region as a whole is one of the world finest natural reserve, remaining untouched by the human. It goes without saying that a great number of tourists would be detrimental to the local wildlife, which is uncustomed to our interference. Le Nguyen Thien Huong, a Fulbright University faculty, wrote:” … Biologically, caves’ ecology is exceptionally fragile. It is completely isolated from the rest of the world, especially with a cave unexplored for 2-5 million years like Son Doong … If hundreds, thousands of visitors, bringing light, noise and CO2, there will be a drastic change to the local environment, harming the flora and fauna system.” Heavy construction may also risk the region geological stability. “… Construction may trigger a mass collapse, not only endangering the caves but also turning them into a tourists burial grounds…”, Huong remarked.
While some question if the environmental risks would outweigh the benefits, others are skeptical of the economic gains itself. The same research from Charles Darwin University also reported a rise in local prices as well as a drop in public safety and health services. When the economy relies so much on tourism, local development in education, culture, and health may be put to the sideline in favor of tourism growth.
Furthermore, the jobs created may not be sufficient to support the locals, while environmental changes make farming and living off the land impossible. Careers made possible by the caves remoteness and natural untamed beauty like porters or guides may also disappear, leaving those depended on these jobs vulnerable to the shifting regional economy. For those who are able to find new employment provided by the tourism boom, their lives may undergo drastic changes but perhaps not for the better. For instance, the locals are often drawn by the prospects of new jobs which will supposedly drive them out of grinding poverty. However, the lucrative money gain may be at the expense of the more simple ways of life that they have been used to. One can say that trading off their health and family for the toils in the tourism industry may do them more harm than good.
–A Future for Son Dong–
As of now, all plans for a cable system in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park have been canceled and there is no major new development for the region. Instead, there are projects to boost local tourism by more eco-friendly means such as trekking and boating. The plan might be gone, still, it raises a very important question: How should we develop and utilize our natural heritage? Mass tourism might not be the right choice for everything. In lieu of trying to tame and shape the natural world in order to exploit it, we should try to appreciate its majesty by carefully exploring its secret. Development and conservation should never be at odds. After all, if the local economy grows, there can be more resources dedicated to conservation and in turn further improve the regions. Howard Limbert, the British caver first explored Son Doong, has been hard at work developing adventure tours in Son Doong as well as many other beautiful caves like Hang En. He wishes that this will turn Quang Binh into a center for explorers in South East Asia, helping to protect the UNESCO world heritage. “It’s not easy and there are challenges all the time, but when you get out there, when you go remote, it’s obvious this is a very, very unique place and well worth fighting for.”