Tourist boats are no longer allowed to stop in UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay
This move is positioned as an attempt to protect tourists from agressive vendors, but it’s just as much an effort to protect a unique fishing village from the dangers of tourism.
Authorities in Vietnam are attempting to clamp down on hawkers in Ha Long Bay, following a spate of incidents in which tourists have been scammed.
The picturesque Unesco World Heritage Site, which is renowned for its 2,000 limestone outcrops, is home to an estimated 650 floating houses, the residents of which make a living by fishing in the bay and selling seafood, snacks and souvenirs to passing tour boats.
However, reports have emerged of travellers being hassled and ripped off by the fisherman.
Earlier this year, a holidaymaker claimed he was forced to pay VND 11.5 million (£340) for a 6kg fish, with hawkers threatening to tie up the tour boat if he refused, while a captain was recently attacked by two vendors when he tried to prevent them from boarding his boat to sell to tourists.
These, and other incidents, have prompted authorities to ban all tour boats from stopping at the floating houses and villages in the bay. A “tourism inspection force” has been established to enforce the ban, and captains that refuse to comply risk having their license revoked.
James Jayasundera, founder of Ampersand Travel, a luxury tour operator that offers itineraries in Vietnam, said the ban would disappoint some visitors, who enjoy photographing the floating villages and examining the local’s catch, but admitted that the situation had got out of hand.
He said: “It’s quite tough on the real floating villages, but many of the people that sell to tourists don’t actually live there – they stay on the mainland and head out in to Ha Long each day. Tour boat captains will often get a cut for agreeing to take tourists along.
“It’s a bit of racket – wherever there is money people will try to take advantage of it. The Vietnamese authorities want to maintain the bay’s World Heritage status, and overall it seems like the right move.”
Mr Jayasundera added that the country’s growing popularity among holidaymakers – the first direct flights from Britain to Vietnam were launched last December – meant that foreigners must increasingly face a hard sell from locals, in Ha Long Bay and beyond.
The ban would mostly affect independent backpackers, who sign up for day-long tours with travel agents in Hanoi. A number of high-end operators, including Ampersand, run boat tours that do not visit the villages. However, a spokesperson for Exodus, a firm whose packages previously included trips to the villages, said it was disappointed by the blanket ban.
“Incidents where tourists have been threatened need to be addressed, but [the visits] gave an insight into the lives of the people in the bay, and we’ve received no complaints from travellers,” he said.
Safety standards in Ha Long Bay were recently reviewed following the sinking of a tour boat in February 2011 which resulted in 12 deaths.