The Quang Binh People’s Committee said on Thursday that they are taking into careful consideration a proposed project to build a cable car system to Son Doong Cave - the world’s current largest - in UNESCO-recognized Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park amidst mounting concerns among the public and conservation experts regarding the potential harm the system may do to the site.
On Wednesday, the north-central province announced it has permitted Sun Group - a local developer of tourism properties - to conduct surveys for the construction of a cable car system to Son Doong.
The 10.6km long cable car system, which would cost roughly US$211.8 million, will have four sections and begin at the entrance to Tien Son Grotto.
The last section will extend from the mouth to the floor of Son Doong Grotto’s second pit.
In an interview with Tuoi Tre (Youth) Newspaper, Truong An Ninh, of the provincial’s People’s Committee, said that the province is gathering public and expert opinions before reaching a final decision.
This final decision depends on whether Sun Group can meet the province’s and UNESCO’s requirements, he noted.
Amidst concerns from the public and experts regarding the potential harm the construction may pose to the World Heritage Site, Ninh said that his committee has consulted several Swiss experts, who pointed out that many World Heritage Sites across the globe now boast cable car systems.
“In their opinion, cable cars are the most environmentally friendly approach and pose the least harm to the site, as they run at a certain height,” he noted.
Members of the public and conservation experts are also worried that the cable cars will result in a sharp rise in the number of tourists to the site from the current average of 200 per year, which may bring human intervention and adverse impacts to Son Doong Cave and the park’s other attractions.
“According to Sun Group’s preliminary reports, the system has only three terminals located in the site’s core areas. At the last terminal at Son Doong, tourists won’t leave their cabins and thus won’t litter,” Ninh stressed.
Last month, the province began officially launching tours to Son Doong Grotto after running them on a year-long pilot program.
Adventure tours cost US$3,000-6,000 per person.
Ninh said that the number of tourists that trek to Son Doong Cave is around 200 per year, bringing the province total revenue of VND8-10 billion (up to US$470,677).
“This number will certainly soar after the cable car system is complete, as Son Doong boasts irresistible appeal to both local and international tourists,” Ninh asserted.
The province, which is also home to the resting place of legendary Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap, has received 2.5 million visits so far this year, a number which is expected to rise to over 3 million next year.
Among them, 1-1.5 million visits to Son Doong alone would bring in huge revenue.
“That will benefit people in the province and across the country, and considerably more people will have the opportunity to explore Son Doong,” he added.
Ninh also noted that the cable car system won’t ruin the adventure thrills, as some have worried, as adventure-loving tourists who are fit enough to cross the treacherous terrain can trek in the area, while those with less stamina may choose the cable cars.
Dang Minh Truong, CEO of Sun Group, who is conducting surveys for the cable car system project, said his company has invited foreign experts to join in the work.
He reassured that the project, if approved, will boast much more hi-end technology than the system at Ba Na in central Vietnam’s Da Nang City, which Sun Group also built, and will satisfy all of UNESCO’s criteria on sustainable development.
Truong noted that over 80 UNESCO-recognized sites around the world now boast cable car systems.
He added that the project won’t include the construction of resorts due to a lack of facilities, so the potential environmental damage would be minimal, if any.
Howard Limbert, head of the British exploration team that has operated in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang area in the province over the past 24 years, expressed strong concerns about the project’s feasibility.
Limbert has discovered hundreds of caves in Quang Binh and taken steps to put 200 kilometers of local caves on the global list.
The expert and his colleagues have taken hundreds of thousands of beautiful photographs of caves in Phong Nha-Ke Bang.
“I personally find the project a bad idea. The damage to Son Doong cave would be irreversible, and the cable cars would rob the cave of its pristine charms and the adventure thrills it has to offer. The construction would also take its toll on the cave’s surrounding areas,” Limbert noted.
“Mass tourism” would bring short-term benefits to the province, but would cause the number of foreign tourists to drop in the long run, he stressed.
Phong Nha, and Quang Binh Province in general, have the potential to become one of Asia’s top tourist attractions.
It’s expected that foreign tourists to the province will outnumber local ones in a few years’ time, Limbert added.
Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003.
The Son Doong Grotto was discovered in 1991 by Ho Khanh, a local, but only became well-known after a group of scientists from the British Cave Research Association, led by Howard and Deb Limbert, explored it in 2009.
According to the Limberts, this cave is five times larger than Phong Nha cave, previously considered the biggest in Vietnam.
The largest chamber of Son Doong is more than five kilometers long, 200 meters high, and 150 meters wide.
In June, provincial authorities rebutted rumors that it had allowed Sun Group to build a cable car system and a pagoda in and around Son Doong cave amid public and expert concerns over the possible damage to the UNESCO World Heritage site surrounding it.