Vietnam: Son Doong, the largest cave in the world, a unique ecosystem under threat

Nestled in the heart of the Vietnamese jungle, Son Doong, the largest cave in the world, open to visitors for eight years, is a model of ecotourism, but this unique ecosystem is threatened by tourism projects.

This underground maze, dug and eroded for millions of years, rises in places to 200 meters high: it could contain a block of New York buildings with 40-story skyscrapers.

Inside, a tunnel more than five kilometers long, a 90-meter-high calcite barrier – the “Great Wall of Vietnam”, gigantic stalagmites and stalactites …

In 1991, Ho Khanh, a local forager, accidentally discovered the entrance to the cave, hidden in the UNESCO-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

He tries to return, but is unable to find the hole, hidden in thick jungle, and the site lapses into oblivion for nearly 20 years.

In 2009, Khanh and a team of British researchers spotted the entrance again and the cave was finally listed. Four years later, a part is open to tourists.

” Protect ”

Since then, only a travel agency, Oxalis, has been authorized to show it around, a good way to limit the number of visitors.

The objective: not to repeat the same mistakes as in some emblematic places of the country, such as Ha Long Bay or the beaches of Nha Trang, threatened by mass tourism before the coronavirus pandemic.

Only a few hundred visitors enter Son Doong each year.

The precious sesame comes at a price: between 50 euros per visit and 2,500 euros for four days of exploration.

I told the young people who show the cave that “their first duty is to protect the environment so that the exploitation (of the site) also benefits our children”, reports to AFP Ho Khanh, now elderly. 52 years old.

The economic spinoffs mainly benefit the local population, a boon in this remote and particularly poor central region of the country.

In the past, young people would enter the national park to illegally chop the precious agarwood, used in making incense. Others hunted endangered species of civets and porcupines.

“We were always under threat from the rangers (and) we were not doing anything good for nature,” said Ho Minh Phuc, a former woodcutter who became a porter for the groups authorized to explore the cave.

Guides, porters, owners of small accommodation for tourists: some 500 locals live today thanks to Son Doong and the other gigantic cavities in the national park.

Cable car

But threats to the site remain great, as UNESCO points out in a 2019 report.

A cable car project to Son Doong has been abandoned, but another to get to a cave 3.5 kilometers away is still under consideration.

This will cause “a radical change in the nature of the tourist offers on offer (…) and will certainly have irreversible impacts on the largely virgin environment” of the site, warns UNESCO.

Experts are equally worried.

The pandemic is hitting tourism in Vietnam hard: the number of foreign visitors fell by nearly 80% in 2020 compared to 2019, when the country welcomed 18 million foreign visitors, a record.

The economic stakes are such that, as soon as the health crisis ends, Vietnam could give in to the sirens of the promoters and develop infrastructures around the cavities of the park, warn the experts.

The authorities have put in place “very good protection policies, but often they ignore them” and do not take them into account in reality, notes Peter Burns, a consultant who worked on a sustainable tourism project in Vietnam.

For wearer Phuc, it is crucial that the post-pandemic does not drag Son Doong into mass tourism.

“That would be terrible,” this natural wonder will shrivel up in a few years and our livelihood will disappear, he warns.

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