Trashing Tourism: Travelling in Vietnam and the Litter Problem

Blogs - Vietnam: Nov. 19, 2018

This year two of Southeast Asia’s most infamous beach resorts—Boracay in The Philippines and Phi Phi in Thailand—have been closed to tourists in order to clean up their beaches and seas, thrusting the ugly side of the region’s tourism boom into the spotlight. Both resorts have suffered problems associated with overcrowding, including mismanaged waste disposal and damage to marine life, according to CNN. With the recent surge in visitors to Vietnam, some of the country’s most treasured tourist attractions, such as Halong Bay, Phu Quoc island and Nha Trang, are similarly struggling to maintain their traveller credentials in the wake of the masses of litter spoiling their natural beauty.

trashing tourismImage source: halongbaytours.com.vn

The Vietnamese government has taken an aggressive approach to the promotion and development of Vietnam’s tourism industry, resulting in the number of international arrivals reaching more than 6.7 million in the first five months of this year, an increase of 27.6 percent over the same period last year, as reported by the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism.

While this is positive news for the country’s growing economy, the millions of travellers flocking to Vietnam are jeopardising its natural landscapes.

The limestone islands of Halong Bay and the palm-fringed beaches of Phu Quoc rank in most top-10 lists of must-visit spots in Vietnam, but a closer look at most traveller forums and discussion groups will reveal a recurring gripe among the travel community in Vietnam: litter.

Littering by both locals and tourists is now an epidemic in Vietnam, with 18,000 tonnes of plastic waste generated a day, according to Tuoi Tre news, and the country is struggling to deal with this. VN Express reported that only 40 to 60 percent of waste in rural and suburban areas ends up in dumps, while the rest is discharged into canals and rivers that flow into the sea.

trashing tourismImage source: Phan Thiet

Phu Quoc Ruined by Rubbish?

In tourist areas such as Phu Quoc, small businesses are mushrooming to meet the rising demand but many do not follow proper procedures for waste disposal or are unwilling to adapt to a more eco-friendly way of working, according to Duggy Dugong, Marketing Director of the Phu Quoc Chamber of Commerce, an independent, not-for-profit group.

trashing tourismImage source: urbanistnetwork.com

Dugong explained that this can extend to businesses falsely using the recycling symbol—when there is no recycling on Phu Quoc island—or branding themselves “eco-friendly” as a marketing tool to capitalise on the increasingly environmentally-conscientious travel community.

He added, “there is no accountability or standards, and most are doing it in order to have a competitive edge over similar businesses”.

Michelle Vu, Sales and Marketing Representative for Mango Bay Resort in Phu Quoc, talked about the measures the resort is implementing, from eliminating plastic straws to using all of its organic waste to fertilise its gardens.

Vu said that glass waste is a big problem in Phu Quoc, as there is nobody buying and collecting glass for recycling. She added that if tourist numbers in Vietnam continue to rise without any long-term solution, a breaking point will be reached and Vietnam’s global reputation as a tourist destination will be damaged.

Dugong explained that there are just two garbage dumps on the island and they have reached capacity. These are sprayed with chemicals by the locals to prevent the stench from wafting over to nearby resorts.

Halong Bay and Nha Trang Wrangle with Waste

The story is similar at the other end of the county. Visitors to Halong Bay will know how blighted the UNESCO World-Heritage site is by the abundance of trash floating in the emerald waters. Much of this waste originates from the thousands of tourist boats floating in the bay, but there are some tour companies making efforts to reform the Halong Bay experience. The Indochina Junk company has sponsored a clean-up programme in Halong Bay, collecting 24,638 kg of garbage in 2016, and other agencies encourage tourists to take part in clean-up drives in exchange for a discount.

trashing tourismImage source: urbanistnetwork.com

In Central Vietnam, backpacker mecca Nha Trang also suffers from litter problems. Ary Arbani, Marketing Communications Manager for Six Senses Ninh Van Bay, explained that the Nha Trang community “are very much concerned about the impact of waste and littering, particularly plastic, and the problem is compounded with the rapid development of tourism in the area”.

Arbani said that the Six Senses resorts have been filtering and bottling their own drinking water, eliminating the use of plastic water bottles. Six Senses Ninh Van Bay alone is saving around 10,000 plastic bottles per month.

While there has been a budget allocated for further green infrastructure projects, many have not yet come to fruition. Dugong mentioned that the Vietnamese government has laid plans to fund a new recycling centre, a waste collection centre and a new recycling business process for Phu Quoc before 2020, although there is scepticism about this. Just this year, a new waste management facility opened on the island but was subsequently shut down for unknown reasons.

Path Towards a Greener Vietnam

Julia Mesner Burdge, co-founder of Zero Waste Saigon, said, “What needs to be done is work here in Vietnam to produce less trash, on a business level, and raise awareness to the public.” Hotels and tour companies can do their part by working towards making environmental preservation an integral part of the tourist experience.

trashing tourismImage source: theculturetrip.com

Dugong suggested that what’s needed is a summit between the Southeast Asian nations to discuss the garbage issue, as much of the coastal trash comes in from the seas, which is difficult to control without a united approach.

Globally, travellers are increasingly aware of their environmental impact and there is a growing market for “green travel”, with 87 percent of global travellers stating that they want to travel sustainably, according to a recent report by booking.com.

With this global shift towards more sustainable travel, the-call-to-action is coming from an eco-conscious travel community as much as from global authorities and NGOs.

There are commendable small-scale efforts being made by a number of individuals, businesses and green communities such as Zero Waste Saigon and Clean Up Vietnam, but the country continues to face a significant challenge in promoting economic growth whilst maintaining, protecting and enhancing its natural environment for the future.

Video source: TomoNews US

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