Briefing on Tourism, Development and Environment Issues
in the Mekong Subregion
ADB'S UNDEMOCRATIC STRUCTURE AND "POVERTY REDUCTION" RHETORIC EXPOSED
[AMTA: March 2000; International Press Service: 5.5.00; Bangkok Post: 5.5.00; 11.5.00; The Nation: 5.5.00; Watershed: March-June 2000] - THE newsletter published by the Agency for Coordinating Mekong Tourism Activities (AMTA), the secretariat of the Asian Development Bank's (ADB) tourism working group for the Greater Mekong Subregion, regularly features achievements of ADB's tourism-related programmes, which constitute a part of the bank's new "poverty reduction" strategy. Its March issue stated, for example,"The projects initiated under the GMS economic cooperation framework have been drafted out with the determination of the parties involved to generate socio-economic benefits to people living in the GMS subregion."
The new mantra of poverty reduction also dominated discussions at the ADB's annual meeting in Chiang Mai in May. Why then did thousands of villagers and NGOs take to the streets in the northern Thai city during the ADB conference to rigorously protest the bank's projects and lending policies?
The ADB critics argue while the bank is trying to put on a more "human" face and show concern for the poor, its policies to promote liberalization and privatization continue to wreak havoc with the lives of millions of people. In fact, even some ADB staff members bemoan the bank's unsuccessful attempts to integrate various objectives: poverty reduction, social development, sustainable development, promoting women's welfare, and good governance. One bank official said since "the future of Asia lies in solving the food security problem, not in providing more physical infrastructure, the bank may have made a strategic mistake."
Grainne Ryder, policy director of the Canadian NGO Probe International, particularly denounced the ADB's mass eviction plans in the name of poverty reduction. "For the ADB, the displacement of people means poverty reduction. The ADB first defines people as poor and as obstacles in their watershed and dam building plans, and so they must be moved; thereafter, jobs can be created as tourist guides, forest guards or even plantation workers."
The ADB lends about US$5 billion a year across the Asia-Pacific region for development projects - many of them tourism-related -, which affect human rights and the environment of tens of millions of indigenous people in particular. In 1998, it introduced an "Indigenous Peoples' Policy", recognizing development should be compatible with the culture of the many ethnic minority groups in the region. However, Suhas Chakma, director of the New Delhi-based Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network, pointed out at an ADB-sponsored seminar in Chiang Mai, "In the past, the ADB has formulated its policies without the participation of indigenous peoples. That's its main problem." He urged bank officials to involve indigenous peoples at every stage of projects that would affect them and alter those policies if necessary.
Ms Tran Thi Lanh, director of the Vietnam-based 'Towards Ethnic Women' (TEW) and the 'Centre for Human Ecological Study of Highlands' (CHESH), argued that ADB's development policies are incompatible with indigenous peoples' aspirations, which are based on a holistic relationship between human beings and their natural resources. But the ADB had ignored such concerns, she said. In an interview with Watershed she explained:
"We became aware of a (ADB) project called the 'Poverty Reduction and Environmental Management in the Remote Watersheds of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS)' and attended a meeting in Vientiane hosted by the ADB… At the meeting, it became clear that the ADB has adopted an approach to development that is fundamentally different from the approach of TEW/CHESH."
Firstly, Ms Tran commented on the undemocratic structure of the bank's project, "…no local representatives of ethnic minority people were present at the meeting. There was noone from a district or community level there to express their needs and voice their experiences."
Secondly, she criticized the incompetence of project designers. "The organizers, who were responsible for the project lacked both knowledge and understanding of indigenous people's reality in the Mekong Region," she said. "They ignored indigenous values: values about nature and human values of culture and community. This was clear in the project documents, their comments at the meeting and the way the meeting was contolled."
Finally, she pointed out the ADB's neglect of indigenous peoples' traditional social systems and cultures. "The project documents were focused on how to introduce new methodologies of marketing cash crops and developing cash economies throughout the GMS, with no criteria or indicators to assess what exactly would happen as a result in the future regarding social impacts, indigenous people's values or identity, indigenous social institutions, traditional community structures, etc. We did not see any analysis about these indigenous issues and their relationship with the development being proposed. Judging from the way the conference was organized and the documents, we consider that long-term outcomes will be worse for humans and for natural diversity in the Mekong Region as a result of this project."
Bangkok Post's Assistant Editor Sanitsuda Ekachai commented that democracy was still missing at this year's ADB annual meeting in Chiang Mai.
"The ADB's lack of interest in listening to the poor - while painting itself as pro-poor - shows that supranational institutions are hypocrites," she said. "They demand good governance, transparency and accountability of the nation states they do business with, but they don't have those virtues themselves. The ADB protests show that indignation against policies that hurt people's livelihoods are boiling hot across the land. People want change. They want policy transparency and good governance. They want a voice. But people's democracy clashes head on with the closed systems of national government and international financial institutions - as happened in Chiang Mai." v
GROUPS CALL FOR ADEQUATE ECONOMIC BALANCE SHEETS IN TOURISM
The Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m.-team), Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) and Third World Network (TWN) based in Penang, Malaysia, are jointly preparing a survey to determine the real costs and benefits of international tourism.
Economic considerations generally outweigh other issues in assessments of tourism development, particularly in the Third World. However, experts concerned with data collection and analysis have been widely criticized for using questionable methodologies and producing unreliable figures regarding the economic value of tourism. While the tourism industry, governments and supranational institutions that usually sponsor economic impact studies appear to be desperate to underline the benefits, the full economic costs of tourism are far from being properly researched. This particularly holds true for the study on foreign exchange leakages and unfavourable impact on the balance of payments in destination countries; heavy government expenditure for tourism purposes; tourism-related debts; economic losses related to the rapid integration of tourism-related industries; increased inflation; as well as social and environmental costs that can hardly be expressed in monetary terms.
In order to produce usable up-to-date cost-benefit analyses, it is also important to grasp the most recent trends in the globalized travel and tourism sector. Thus, questions like the following will be examined:
· Have destination countries calculated economic losses resulting from the generation of over-capacities in the travel and tourism sector over the last decade?
· Are there estimates of foreign exchange losses due to acquisition of local assets by foreign travel and tourism companies as a result of liberalization and privatization policies?
· What is the amount of foreign exchange losses in the travel and tourism sector due to currency devaluation and other financial insecurities since the outbreak of the Asian financial crisis in 1997?
Furthermore, it is to show whether the proponents of new, seemingly benign forms of tourism can substantiate their economic argument with hard facts and figures: that - in comparison with conventional tourism, which is usually controlled by transnational companies - so-called responsible, fair traded, sustainable or eco-tourism significantly improves the living standard of local residents in destinations.
It is hoped that the findings of this survey can fill some of the obvious research gaps and serve as the base for more detailed economic analysis of contemporary tourism. It is also hoped that this initiative will encourage agencies and individuals, who have information about the real economic value of tourism, share their knowledge and intensify research to produce more adequate balance sheets. Realistic cost-benefit analyses are not only important for individual countries to review their tourism policies, but also for the current negotiations of multilateral trade and investment agreements (e.g. GATS), which are considerably hampered by the lack of an adequate data base in the service sector.
BOYCOTT LONELY PLANET FOR ITS DEPLORABLE BURMA GUIDE!
Excerpts from a press statement released by British campaign groups on 26 May 2000
On Friday 26 May The Burma Campaign UK (TBC) and Tourism Concern (TC) will launch a new arm of their existing campaign opposing tourism to Burma. The campaign groups are calling for a boycott of all Lonely Planet publications (LP) until the company withdraws its Burma guide from the market (new edition January 2000). TBC and TC representatives, and members of the Burmese community will mark the launch by dumping hundreds of unwanted LP guides on the company’s doorstep.
A postcard campaign will be launched simultaneously. The postcards depict a paradise beach scene with the word BURMA across it. The M and the A are scratched off by a hand revealing the bloody reality. The text reads: "The cost of a holiday in Burma could be someone’s life". Thousands of these postcards will be sent to Lonely Planet by supporters of the campaign making the pledge not to buy Lonely Planet guide books until the Burma guide is withdrawn.
There are remarkably few areas in the world where human rights are fully respected. There are also few occasions when the nature of the suppression of human rights is such that the exclusion of tourists from the country is justified. However Burma provides a rare but clear example:
· The development of tourism in Burma is directly linked to well documented mass human rights abuses. There are approximately eight million men, women and children as young as eight years old in forced labour each year in Burma. The United Nation’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports that "the military…treat the civilian population as an unlimited pool of forced labourers and servants at their disposal. The practice of forced labour is to encourage private investment in infrastructure development, public sector works and tourism projects."
· Income generated through tourism helps to sustain one of the most brutal military regimes in the world. On the other hand tourism benefits only a tiny percentage of Burma’s 48 million people; eighty per cent live in rural areas and their primary means of income is agriculture.
· Burma’s elected leaders - the only authority with a mandate to speak for the people - have pleaded for all tourists and the tourism industry to avoid Burma whilst it remains a dictatorship. WHY BOYCOTT LON
For the reasons outlined above, LP’s promotion of tourism to Burma is entirely inappropriate at this time. This view is compounded by the ill-informed account of the ethical debate concerning tourism to Burma contained within the new edition of the guide (January 2000), and the decision to play down the severity of continuing human rights abuses in the country: For example:
· LP makes the claim that forced labour in Burma "appears to be on the wane" (page 27). A 1998 United States Department of Labor report states that: "the absence of the rule of law in Burma also means international labor standards are not protected…The Burmese people are subjected to forced labor and child labor appears to be increasing. We collected and reviewed a great deal of information from a wide and diverse range of sources but I believe the government's refusal of access speaks volumes in itself." The United Nation’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) who have accused Burma of a "crime against humanity" for their widespread and systematic use of forced labour, also have no evidence in their September 1999 report of any such wane in the practice of this abuse. Lonely Planet has a clear responsibility to provide the most current sources to back-up their claims.
· LP refers to Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy leader inaccurately as ‘the former’, rather than the current, General Secretary of the party that won the 1990 democratic elections, the National League for Democracy (NLD) (page 2).
· LP claim that there are divisions between the NLD and the Burmese Government in exile (the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma) over tourism (page 2) is founded on inadequate research. The NLD and the NCGUB are categorically opposed to any form of tourism, including independent travel, to Burma at the current time. There is no difference of opinion on this matter. THE BOYCOTT
All publishers who produce Burma guides have received written requests from TBC and TC to withdraw their guides from the market. The campaign groups hope LP, as the market leader, will provide an example to the others by taking action to withdraw their guide. Through a boycott of all LP publications - with the aim of negating expected income from sales of the company’s Burma guide in the UK – TBC and TC aim to encourage the company to take this action.
People, who want to join the boycott campaign are requested to write to Tony and Maureen Wheeler, publishers of Lonely Planet, email: email@example.com. For more detailed information, contact TBC UK, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out TC's webpage www.tourismconcern.org.uk/campaigns/lp_main.htm.
TRAVELLERS TOLERATE HASSLES
[Asian Wall Street Journal: 2.5.00; Bangkok Post: 18.5.00] - THE mobile-phone rentals at Phnom Penh's Pochentong airport and "cyber-relations officers" at the major hotels may seem miraculous for a country that during its darkest days - the 1975-79 years of Khmer Rouge rule - saw its currency abolished, its cities emptied and many thousands of its citizens killed.
That may explain why visitors usually have tolerance for the bad roads, expensive phone calls and lack of speedy Internet access. Santipong Pimolsaengsuriya, Cambodia manager for McCann-Erickson, said the advertising agency's Cambodia clients display more flexibility than they would elsewhere. "In Thailand or Malaysia, they would expect first-class service because there is no excuse," he said.
Chief among complaints are poor infrastructure, expensive and inefficient telecommunications and a deficiency of flights. And though the visa-on-arrival policy has received much praise as a facilitator, some visitors report being asked to pay more than the requisite visa fee of US$20 for tourists and US$25 for those on business.
Ronald Ko, a Hong Kong garment-industry executive who arranged his visa before visiting Phnom Penh in April, said an immigration officer still asked him for money. "Certainly I have not given it to him," he said. "I just pretended I do not understand English."
Cambodia's government over the past few months has cracked down on corruption, arresting dozens of officers and civil servants over illegal roadblocks and extortion. But some visitors are worried about the bigger picture. "As a business traveler, that's the last thing you want to see," said a Singaporean who had a similar airport experience. "If that's already happening at the customs counter, can you imagine how much more you'll have to pump in if you want to invest?"
Outside the airport, a multitude of motorcycle drivers awaits to take visitors into Phnom Penh for US$1, while a taxi costs a set US$7 for the 20-minute trip. Many people hire a car and a driver for US$35-40 a day, a service most hotels can arrange.
The city's three most well-known hotels - Le Royal, the Intercontinental and the Sofitel Cambodiana - all have suffered after the 1997 coup that consolidated Prime Minister Hun Sen's hold on power and scared visitors away from Cambodia for several months. Although business came back, the Intercontinental, for one, concedes that growth is not as rapid as expected. Business was slowed further with the start of direct international flights to Siem Reap, allowing tourists headed for the grand temples of Angkor to bypass Phnom Penh altogether.
Overall, travellers are set to benefit from improved roads and more flights as Cambodia turns to tourism in earnest. Cambodia's first tourism minister, Veng Sereyvuth, who drove a taxi in Wellington during the 1980s, aims to extend the visa-on-arrival policy to overland border crossings, saying that travel in and out of the country "should flow like the Mekong."
"Tourism development is a huge responsibility, and Cambodia needs to get the country ready," Veng recently told the Bangkok Post. "The government realizes the great potential of tourism for Cambodia's development." Therefore, the tourism ministry is preparing to announce 2003 as Cambodia Tourism Year.
However, the push to draw more visitors hit a bump again in March after armed men robbed tourists on a riverboat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. But the government's quick response was praised by investors and helped to soothe renewed fears of lawlessness. The next issue to address is overcrowding on the riverboats: A Taiwanese tourist drowned last April after a boat hit a log and sank.
Despite Cambodia's problems, Eric Fisher, chairman of Las Vegas lottery-management firm Gamex, feels doing business there is a safe bet. He has traveled there since 1995, lately to introduce the country to Internet bingo, and says the locals he has dealt with "have honored every handshake they've ever given me." v
MORE NATIONAL PARKS RAVAGED BY CONSTRUCTION AND TOURIST TIDE
[The Nation: 19.4.00; 14.5.00; Bangkok Post: 17.5.00] - THE Royal Forestry Department (RFD) staunchly defends its tourism promotion project in national parks (see also new frontiers, 6). Plodprasop Suraswadee, the department chief, recently stressed that every effort had been taken to minimize the impact on the environment.
Following reports the department had cut trees to clear sites for bungalows, parking lots, roads and trails in Khao Sok, Suthep-Pui and Khao Yai national parks, Plodprasop said he welcomed genuine concern and an open debate. After environmentalists and villagers in Khao Sok, Surat Thani province, protested at the loss of trees from the building of a 1km-long road from the park office to a reservoir, Plodprasop ordered work halted to determine if the link was necessary.
A road improvement project and the building of luxurious bungalows in Kaeng Krachan National Park, Phetchaburi province, have also triggered protests from environmentalists. The new 36km-long road, which is now 60 per cent complete, will bring in more tourists and facilitate speedy driving harming wildlife in the park, they say. However, Plodprasop claimed he would make sure that no trees are felled for the project. "We'll take extreme caution just like in Khao Sok and Khao Yai national parks, where a similar plan is being implemented," he said. Park chief Panya Preedasanith affirmed the road would have no impact on the park ecology and activities such as birdwatching. He also contended the 10 bungalows under construction would be only for VIP tourists who can afford to pay Bt2,000 (about US$50) per person and night, adding the new buildings would not block any views as critics had alleged.
The case in Suthep-Pui National Park, Chiang Mai province, is also under close watch. A so-called renovation project there is part of the department's loan from World Bank's Social Investment Project (SIP) for tourism development in parks.
Meanwhile, a survey team of The Nation found that major construction projects - some involving logging operations - are being in full steam in national parks countrywide under the pretence of promoting eco-tourism. "The fine line dividing the conservation and tourism uses of national parks was blurred again when the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) dumped Bt600 million (US$15.4 mill.) of loans it received from the World Bank's SIP on the RFD to build additional tourist facilities in 19 protected areas," said The Nation report, which included a detailed list of construction projects in the 19 parks.
The construction works neatly coincide with the RFD's "Visit National Park Year 2000" campaign to raise revenue by luring more than 20 million tourists to parks this year. However, the ambitious money-making plan of the TAT and the RFD has come under fire from forestry academics and environmentalists who call the plan NATIONAL PARKS FOR SALE.
"Both government agencies are desperate for more revenue because of budget cuts from the economic crisis," said a forestry official who opposes the plan and spoke on condition of anonymity. "But do we really need to sell out our nationals parks?"
Opining the RFD does not understand the "virtue of moderation", Narong Changkamol, an environmentalist from the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, asked: "What's the suitable count of tourists to be allowed in for one parK? Does the department know this?"
Among the 19 parks currently frazzled by chainsaws, bulldozers and hammers are highly popular ones such as Khao Yai, Doi Inthanon in Chiang Mai, Phu Kradung in Loei and Kaeng Krachan in Phetchaburi, which are already overwhelmed by visitors during the high season. Yet, more accommodations, souvenir shops and multi-purpose buildings are being put up, security unites and toilets installed, roads and parking lots paved, nature trails and camping grounds laid out. Countless trees are being felled for use as construction materials. The SIP loan conditions outlined by the World Bank call for all projects to be completed by the end of this year.
A TAT official, who wished to be anonymous, defended his agency, saying it just wanted to facilitate better security for tourists visiting national parks, adding that the TAT had received many complaints from domestic and foreign tourists about the low standard of amenities and accommodations. A RFD official argued his agency just introduced activities that complemented eco-tourism to boost public awareness of conservation.
The Visit National Parks Year campaign was modeled on that of the TAT's Amazing Thailand promotion, the forestry official added. The RFD initiated a "passport for national parks" that tourists can get stamped with the logo of each park they visit, he said. Anyone showing the stamps of all 136 national parks will receive a prize of the RFD. v
POISONS IN PARADISE
[Greenpeace: 1.2.00; Bangkok Post: 27.4.00] - THE World Travel & Tourism Council's (WTTC) environmental management programme Green Globe, which has taken on the task to certify environmentally friendly businesses and destinations, recently presented a plan for Koh Samui. Green Globe's regional director, Frank Skillbeck, claimed Samui Island could be one of the first resort destinations in Asia to gain accreditation. If the project funded by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) succeeds, Samui's overseas promotions could carry the prestigious Green Globe logo.
An initial study to outline the scope of the task Samui faces to achieve environmental certification started a year ago. A major focus is to improve the garbage collection service to feed the existing underused incinerator on the island.
While tourism promoters see this Green Globe project as a golden opportunity for Samui to clean up the environment and to build its international profile as a sustainable tourist destination, Greenpeace during its recent "Toxic Free Asia Tour" warned the incinerator causes a great threat to the resort island as it transforms potentially recyclable materials into hazardous waste. While visiting Samui with its flagship Rainbow Warrior beginning of February, Greenpeace pointed out that the tourist island is in danger of becoming a destination for waste disposal from other provinces and possibly even from overseas. One Greenpeace activist reported about the visit to the Samui incinerator:
"We arrived to the site in the morning… Inside the fence, everything was quiet and obviously the plant wasn't running this day. In fact, it would have been a big surprise if it had been running, considering the lack of garbage which makes it possible to run the facility only every 10 days. This could be seen as something positive, but the dark truth is that this puts pressure on Koh Samui to either produce more garbage or to import, instead of reducing the amount of garbage by recycling. To make the two-year-old incinerator cost efficient, the Paradise Island has to be turned into a waste treatment facility for other parts of Thailand or even overseas."
"We were invited inside the incinerator. At first everything appeared very clean and modern, but once we got to the ashdump, the illusion of the harmless plant was crushed." Greenpeace's scientific sampling results showed that lead levels in the ash were around 120 times higher than background and cadmium levels around 80 times higher than background. On top of that, it was found that the facility releases 4 ng/m3 ITEQ of highly toxic dioxin, which is around 40 times higher than the acceptable level applied in Europe and Japan! Sooner or later, the poisonous materials will be assimilated into the nature with devastating results, warned Greenpeace.
"Next time, we get here, this wonderland Island may not be paradise anymore," was the conclusion of the Greenpeace activist's Samui report. It would appear that the Green Globe programme needs to look deeper into the serious problem of inappropriate and polluting technologies such as incineration if environmental management is to be really improved on Koh Samui and other tourist destinations.
For more information on Greenpeace's Toxic Free Asia Tour, visit : www.greenpeace.org/~toxics/toxfreeasia/. v
EROSION EATING AWAY BEACHES
[Bangkok Post: 1.5.00; 9.5.00] - Cha-am and Hua Hin, both favourite seaside vacation spots, are threatened by coastal erosion that is eating away beaches at an alarming pace. The 115km-long coastline from Pak Nam (estuary), Phetchaburi, to Pak Nam Pran Buri, has been severely eroded by waves, said Saksit Tridech, secretary-general of Office of Environmental Policy and Planning (OEPP).
A huge amount of sand had been swept away from famous beaches such as Chao Samran, Peektian, Cha-am, Hua Hin and Klaikangwol. Erosion was particularly serious around the Phetchaburi estuary near Wat Khome Naram, where currents had eaten away 200m of the coast. Royal premises like Maruekkathaiwan Palace, the first royal retreat built by King Rama VI on Cha-am beach, and Klaikangwol Palace in Hua Hin, built in the reign of King Rama VII, were also affected. The 70-year-old sea wall protecting Maruekkathaiwan Palace had sunk into the eroded beach, its height reduced from two metres to only one. A beach road built in 1997 along the mangrove forest to the palace had been severely damaged by sand subsidence a year later.
Experts have pointed the finger at human-made structures. "Nature in itself does erode this coastline. But the accelerated pace is man-made," said Nawarat Krairapanond, the OEPP's expert on coastal erosion. The coast receives heavy rain and storms brought by the northeastern monsoon, which wear away beaches. Structures such as piers, buildings and retaining walls impede, disrupt and divert the natural flow of the sea, which gouges out nearby beaches instead. The impact of the diverted flow is unpredictable, sometimes occurring two or three kilometres north or south of a beach, Mr Nawarat said.
"Damage can not be estimated easily since Hua Hin and Cha-am are popular tourism destinations," Mr Nawarat said. Each square-metre of seaside land eaten away is costly. Land prices along the tourism magnet are extremely high.
People fearing waves might consume all their land threw stones into the sea, and wave retaining walls were built to block the currents. However, existing breakwaters along Hua Hin and Cha-am beaches have proved unsuccessful in preventing coastal erosion. v
MILITARY READY FOR ACTIONS AGAINST BORDER CASINOS
[Bangkok Post: 26.5.00; 27.5.00] - The Thai army may close some border checkpoints they see as gateways to gambling casinos in neighbouring countries. The move follows a surge in the number of Thais and international tourists crossing the borders to try their luck in gambling casinos.
At a recent meeting, the Supreme Command was concerned at the increasing number of casinos along the border with Cambodia, Laos and Burma, as it is estimated that almost 100 million baht [US$2.56 mill.] changes hands at these casinos every day. Gen Montrisak Boonkhong, the army's chief of staff, said all checkpoints or border passes used for purposes other than trade may be closed, adding that the Interior Ministry, customs and the police would be consulted. Another source said that some temporary checkpoints, one of which was reported in Chiang Rai, were opened specifically to facilitate gambling activities.
Gen Chokechai Hongthong, the Supreme Command's chief of staff, said the trafficking of illicit drugs was also rampant along the border, adding that concerned agencies would be asked to co-operate. Large quantities of drugs are reportedly smuggled into the country every year.
The Andaman Club, a casino located on Burmese territory off the Ranong coast, has been under close surveillance since the recent seizure of 4.3 million methamphetamine pills in Prachuap Khiri Khan province. The drugs were hidden in contraband meat contained in plastic bags marked with the club's logo. The casino, owned by Thai business tycoon Vikrom Aiyasiri, is lobbying for permission to operate beyond the 6am-6pm legal hours. Gen Montrisak said the army was opposed to the Andaman Club opening 24 hours a day, for security reasons.
Defence spokesman Sanan Kachornklam affirmed the National Security Council was considering banning overland travel by Thais to casinos in countries bordering Thailand. The navy, meanwhile, would step up patrols in the Mekong river and in the Ranong territorial waters to fight the smuggling of illicit drugs into Thailand. v
BATTLEFIELDS TURN INTO TOURISM SITES
[The Toronto Star: 19.4.00] - Crouched in a labyrinth of secret tunnels, Viet Cong guerrillas used to hide in the Cu Chi tunnels waiting for American soldiers. Now, this former hiding place has become a tourist trap. A quarter-century after the end of the Vietnam War - better known here as the American War - the furtive guerrillas have been reincarnated as foreign tour guides. And war tourism has become big business.
This steaming tropical landscape around Cu Chi, a 70-kilometre drive from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), was once at the epicentre of the fight for South Vietnam. Dense jungle hid a 250-kilometre web of dank, dark tunnels. For the Viet Cong foot soldiers, Cu Chi served as an underground lifeline. Today, it is a potential gold mine for hard currency. An official government publication recently compared Cu Chi to the pyramids of Egypt, describing it as among the ''most alluring tourist attractions for local and foreign travellers."
Air conditioned buses now ferry American war veterans to the site, where retired Vietnamese fighters help their erstwhile enemies clamber down the dusty passages, three metres below the jungle floor. Dug entirely by hand, the tunnels were designed with compact Vietnamese body sizes in mind. To accommodate the wider girths of today's paying customers, the entrances have been enlarged. ''Americans too fat for tunnels," explained one of Cu Chi's English-speaking guides, Le Van Tung. At a rest stop, tourists take turns posing for photos beside a bunker. Tung obligingly snaps photos while directing traffic: ''Next, please," he calls out, as the souvenir hunters file by on cue.
Gunfire crackles in the distance as trigger-happy tourists test their marksmanship with wartime AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles. Priced competitively at 14,000 Vietnamese dong per shot (about 1US$), the firing range allows veterans to relive their days on the front lines. ''One bullet, one dollar," announces the man behind the cash register, below a sign identifying his stall as offering ''Bullet delivery."
Beyond the tunnels and firing ranges of Cu Chi, war tourism is an expanding enterprise in Vietnam. For the more historically minded, side trips are also available to the former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which separated North from South along the 17th Parallel after the French pulled out of Vietnam in 1954. More a firing line than a dividing line, the DMZ is near Da Nang, site of a massive American military base. Now, luxury resorts have sprung up along the shores of China Beach - once a famous R&R stop for GIs - allowing tourists to make day trips from beachfront to battlefront.
Travel agencies with names such as DMZ Tours help visitors make pilgrimages to the Ho Chi Minh trail, the critical supply route that allowed the Viet Cong to infiltrate South Vietnam. At one time, tour operators planned to bring in rich tourists by helicopter, put them up in converted bunkers, and outfit them with old uniforms and wartime walking sticks. But the jungle brush is mostly overgrown now, land mines remain a hazard, and there is little left to see of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Instead, it will soon become a transnational highway (see story below).
Recently, the Quang Tri provincial government budgeted US$300,000 to restore the Vinh Moc tunnels north of the DMZ. And the defence ministry has formed a joint venture company, Vietnam Veterans Tourist Co. that tailors tours for Americans revisiting old haunts. Guided tours are also available of the My Lai massacre site, where American soldiers killed hundreds of civilians.
For the younger generation, ''Apocalypse Now" nightclubs, named after the famous Vietnam War film, offer a taste of nostalgia - and a selection of prostitutes - in downtown Hanoi and HCMC. In Hanoi, tourists staying at the new luxury Hilton Hanoi Opera hotel can walk across town to the the site of the old Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed the ''Hanoi Hilton" by American prisoners of war in the 1960s, long before the American hotel chain had established itself in the capital.
In HCMC, the old American War Crimes Museum, since renamed the War Remnants Museum, features jars of fetuses whose deformities are attributed to the spraying of Agent Orange, a dioxin-laced defoliant, by US forces. After viewing pictures of American atrocities, visitors can stop at an official souvenir stand selling Nike baseball caps and other Americana. v
ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS OVER HO CHI MINH HIGHWAY
[Agence France Presse: 8.5.00; Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists: 18.5.00; Vietnam News Agency: 23.5.00] - Under the plan approved by Prime Minister Pham Van Khai to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the American War last April, the government hopes to complete the first 347 kilometres of the 1,690km-long "Ho Chi Minh Highway" by 2003 at a cost of 378 million dollars. The project is being implemented despite the criticism from various parties who say the money would be better spent on upgrading the existing highway, the National Route 1, than on trying to revive memories of military triumphs more than a quarter of a century old. Moreover, misinformation and miscommunication characterize the current state of the planned HCM Highway and the potential impacts on Cuc Phuong National Park.
Since the Prime Minister lent his support and the government gave the go ahead to this project late last year, the highway has been attracting the attention of the public in general, and has elicited a particularly strong from environmentalists, conservationists and international organizations alike working in Vietnam.
The building of the HCM Highway is considered of high strategic importance to the government. As planned, the highway will link the north and the south, facilitating the flow of traffic and goods, and reducing traffic on National Route 1, currently the only north-south highway in Vietnam. Additionally, the highway is advocated as an opportunity for 28 million people (of 34 ethnic minority groups), including 200 of 1700 poorest communes, to improve their living standards and their cultural and social conditions.
According to one report, the government plans to relocate nearly 30 per cent of the population living in the lowland areas of Thua Thien-Hue, Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces to the highland areas, which will become more attractive with the building of the road. Furthermore, the highway is seen as a way to mitigate the problem of high unemployment, particularly amongst the youth of the nation, by appointing scores of teams of "Youth Brigades" to carry out construction of the road.
However, a number of relevant governmental agencies, conservationists, international organizations, and the public at large have been given little information on the HCM Highway's Master Plan and its environmental impacts. Although the highway has been started in some provinces, it is not clear how much forest will be lost or degraded, and what sort of impact the road will have on biodiversity in general.
According to the Project Management Team, a pre-feasibility study has been implemented by the Ministry of Transportation and Communication (MTC). But given that the MTC is the project implementer as well, there are concerns about the credibility and objectivity of the study. Moreover, it was found that several ministries - including the MTC itself, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (MOSTE) - were misinformed or not given the information necessary for a full understanding of the potential impacts of the road. It was also clear that officials assigned to the project were not committed to transparency. Mr. Pham Hong Son, the Vice-director of the HCM Highway Project, said that Cuc Phuong National Park was not mentioned in any official document issued by the MOSTE or the MARD.
Mr. Than, of Cuc Phuong, said that national park officials were not informed when the survey team came to carry out its survey. However, he said that the Park Management Board found out about the plan when park staff saw the surveyors in the park.
As is currently planned, the road will run through Ninh Binh Province, largely following the old provincial road 437 (a remnant of the American War), and straight through Cuc Phuong. Therefore, the project designers claimed that they were under the impression that there would be almost no new road construction, and that they would just upgrade provincial road 437. Taking issue with that, Ross Douglas, Director of Fauna and Flora International's (FFI) Cuc Phuong Conservation Project, pointed out that the old road is in extremely poor condition and the majority of the traffic on it consists of buffaloes; whereas the new road will be like a dyke cutting through Cuc Phuong.
"The other option would be to move the highway out of Cuc Phuong altogether. It will require more money, but we will ultimately have to pay much more if we lose Cuc Phuong's invaluable natural heritage," Douglas said.
It became clear that the project designers and appointed implementors have little concern for environmental issues. There is a consultation team helping the Project Management Team in terms of environment. However, the manner in which the Project Team is currently addressing the potentially negative environmental impacts of the highway indicates that this consultation team is too weak to provide the information necessary to decision-makers and other concerned parties. The team, however, believes that there is time to change some important points in the plan since only a pre-feasiblilty environmental impact assessment (EIA) has been implemented. One official from MOSTE stated that the full-scale EIA is currently being carried out.
In 1962, Cuc Phuong became the first national park to be established in Vietnam. Its habitats represent the last stretch of lowland primary forest in the north, which is under protection. The park is home to Vietnam's most threatened and critically endangered Delacour langur. Satellite maps show that Cuc Phuong is connected with Pu Luong in Thanh Hoa province, connectivity which, if realized, will create a large tract of protected primary forest.
There are fears that the HCM Highway will destroy this ecosystem by cutting Cuc Phuong into two parts. Moreover, the road will either abut or cut through nine other protected areas in the country, which may turn single ecological units into fragmented pieces.
According to Mr. Frank Momberg, Director of FFI's Vietnam Programme, it is not too late to alter the highway and bypass Vietnam's protected areas. Regardless, a thorough EIA in accordance with international standards is required by Vietnam's own national laws. Therefore, such an EIA should be conducted before proceeding with construction. As part of this process, alternative routing should be considered in order to minimize negative environmental impacts.
"We should have the choice to advocate both development and conservation. This highway issue should not be an issue of timing, because we must make the correct decisions. We'd better postpone the planned construction of the highway for further consideration, and for the sake of the long-term development of the country," said Ms. Nguyen Ngoc Ly, Director of the Environmental Department at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Vietnam.
Meanwhile, construction work on the HCM Highway has been underway since early April this year. It will move almost 53 million cubic metres of stone and soil and pave five million square metres of road with asphalt. The entire project is divided into three phases. The first phase, which will last until 2003, is to connect and upgrade a two-lane asphalt section linking Hanoi with Ho Chi Minh City. The second phase is to fully expand the HCM Highway to four or six lanes in different periods depending on socio-economic situation after 2003. The last phase is to prolong the highway up to the northernmost province of Cao Bang from Hanoi and down to the southernmost province of Ca Mau from Ho Chi Minh City in order to have a complete transnational highway. v
HOTEL BLUES CONTINUES
[The Saigon Times: 3.4.00] - THE Vietnamese newspaper Thoi Bao Tai Chinh warned that the competition through hotels' room rate cut has brought losses to many hotels and aggravated the investment environment. While the number of hotels still increases in the country, amounting to 56,000 rooms (80 per cent of which concentrate in big cities), the number of visitors to Vietnam tends to decrease. Last year, Vietnam received only 1.5 million foreign visitors, down by 11 per cent from 1997. The total occupancy rate of hotels nationwide dropped by 6%-8% from 1997. Most hotels had to cut room rentals to attract customers of other hotels.
In the first half of this year, room rates were reduced by 10-20 per cent on average, and some were even cut by half. At present, room rentals are decided by each hotel, which fuels unhealthy competition among domestic hotels
And has bad impacts on the reputation of Vietnamese tourism. The main reason for the room rental drop is the great over-supply in the hotel sector. v