Can ecotourism offer funding solutions for Vietnam’s national parks?

JEJU, South Korea (18 September, 2012)_Maintaining fragile ecosystems while addressing the development needs of a growing population are often seen as conflicting goals, but booming tourism in one of Vietnam’s national parks could help prove that it is possible to achieve both.
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Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam. Flickr

JEJU, South Korea (24 September, 2012)_Maintaining fragile ecosystems while addressing the development needs of a growing population are often seen as conflicting goals, but booming tourism in one of Vietnam’s national parks could help prove that it is possible to achieve both.

“Cat Tien National Park draws thousands of domestic tourists each year and a smaller but substantial number of international tourists, providing an important source of revenue,” said Luke Preece, a contributing author of Evidence-based Conservation: Lessons from the Lower Mekong and PhD student at Charles Darwin University.

The national park is one of Vietnam’s largest, containing diverse species of flora and fauna, as well as some of the world’s most threatened mammals, including gaur, a species of large bison, and banteng, a type of wild cattle. Cat Tien National Park’s (CTNP) environmental significance was cemented when it joined the Ramsar list of wetlands of international importance and became a UNESCO biosphere reserve, a state-established site aimed at promoting sustainable development through scientific and local community efforts.

The increase in tourism is responsible for an increased accumulation of waste, causing both surface and ground water pollution that is damaging important wetland and grassland areas.

Situated close to Ho Chi Minh City, CNTP has become an increasingly popular destination for city-based eco-tourists, as is evident in the substantial investment given to establish accommodation, restaurants, guides and tours.

Many organisations have been involved in Cat Tien’s ecotourism projects, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which aims to keep local traditions alive by marketing local foods, training tour guides, selling handicraft and setting up homestays.

By providing locals with potential sources of income and incentives to maintain natural habitats, it is argued that tourism is one of the best ways in which conservation can be reconciled with development objectives.

Nevertheless, the authors warn that this growing industry must be carefully monitored and controlled in order not to exacerbate its negative impacts on the park.

“The increase in tourism is responsible for an increased accumulation of waste, causing both surface and ground water pollution that is damaging important wetland and grassland areas,” said Nguyen Huyhn Thuat, an Environmental Education Officer at CTNP and co-author of the book.

As the number of visitors rises annually, so too does the revenue generated by the park. This income, however, is not always spent as initially intended, sometimes ending up compensating for insufficient government funds by paying for routine park maintenance.

“In the Lower Mekong in general, there is a major issue of poor transparency, so funds for conservation are known to be spent ‘informally’,” Preece says.

“Some funds go to the local community to support projects, patrolling of the forest and monitoring. The funds that do go to local communities are relatively small compared to the budget, and the funds only go to a few select villages.”

Such a heavy promotion of ecotourism, however, can have unexpected environmental costs.

Recent confirmation that the last of CTNPs Javan rhinoceros, one of the world’s rarest animals, has been poached into extinction in Vietnam sent shockwaves through the scientific community. Despite CTNP being one of the best funded national parks and protected area systems in the Lower Mekong, CIFOR’s Terry Sunderland, co-editor and contributing author of the book, says a combination of political and economic factors were to blame for the “major conservation failure”.

“Substantial investment was made in park infrastructure for ecotourism, seen as a source of revenue for the long-term financing of the National Park, rather than spent on direct monitoring and protection of the Javan rhino,” he wrote.

Prioritising development goals over conservation ones is also evident in the weak political will to enforce conservation legislation which, in turn, allowed cartels trading in wild animals to continue circumventing international laws and restrictions.

While the importance of striking a balance between conservation and development is evident, Nguyen argues that in order to mitigate possible negative impacts of infrastructure development, CTNPs park authorities must adjust to and tightly control tourist activities.

Without such efforts, rhinos may not be the only thing future visitors to CTNP will miss out on.

Edited by Michelle Kovacevic and Robin McDowell.

This new publication was supported by the MacArthur Foundation. To get your copy please click here.

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  • Ecotourism is already offered to Vietnam, so it not a new phenomenon. But what Vietnam desperately needs to do, is to provide better patrolling of its national parks. Cat Tien National Park was offered in ecotours, to view the Javan rhinos, but ecotourism did not saved them. They were all poached off. Right now, Vietnam has the worst record for patrolling national parks. Not ecotourism, but government and non-government organizations are going to have to assist, in addressing this problem.