Vietnam’s tourism ministry has been criticized for ‘acting outside of its authority’ after issuing, and then quickly withdrawing, a request to have an industry insider punished for his comments on a controversial tourism plan in the central city of Da Nang.
On May 30, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism invited industry insiders to speak at a conference on sustainable tourism in Da Nang, only to demand later that one speaker be punished for his straightforward talk.
In a dispatch issued on June 2, the ministry required that the Da Nang Tourism Association penalize its chairman Huynh Tan Vinh for what it deemed to be “misleading comments” on a controversial tourism plan for Son Tra Peninsula.
However, the ministry was forced to withdraw the dispatch on June 4, following widespread public criticism for abusing its power, given the fact that the Da Nang Tourism Association does not fall under its management.
It has also been argued that the ministry has set a poor precedent, with speaking at a ministry-held scientific conference now associated with trouble in Vietnam.
Local lawyers have said that the tourism ministry has acted beyond its authority and the U-turn it made in releasing and then withdrawing the request is worthy of censure.
Huynh Tan Vinh, chairman of the Da Nang Tourism Association, speaks during a conference.
Abuse of power
In the June 2 dispatch, the ministry said Vinh had “ignored prompts and recommendations from the conference chairman and delivered a speech [on Son Tra Peninsula planning] with inaccurate information and detail.”
In his speech at the conference, Vinh said that the plan to develop a national tourism zone on Son Tra, which will require large-scale deforestation, violates separate laws on forest protection, biodiversity, and natural resources.
The ministry believed that these assertions were “subjective and groundless and result in misleading public perception on the real nature of [the planning].”
The ministry demanded that the Da Nang Tourism Association “review and handle the issue,” as well as ask Vinh to “justify his comments to the ministry by June 15.”
The dispatch was submitted by the ministry-run Vietnam National Administration of Tourism and signed on June 2 by Deputy Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Huynh Vinh Ai.
Upon learning of the controversial document, Vinh accused the ministry of “behaving in an unscientific and unreceptive manner.”
“I made my comments at a scientific conference, so everything I said was scientifically grounded,” Vinh told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper on Sunday.
“Consequently, if the ministry disagrees with me, they have to prove that I am wrong based on scientific arguments and evidence, not by an administrative request to have me punished.”
Deputy Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Huynh Vinh Ai (C) speaks during a seminar on Son Tra.
A lawyer from the Da Nang Bar Association said the Da Nang Tourism Association is a social entity, not a regulatory body under the management of the tourism ministry. “So the ministry cannot treat the association as a unit under their umbrella,” he said.
The lawyer added that the only proper reaction the ministry can have toward comments and statements made by Vinh at the conference is to “accept or reject it.”
Attorney Pham Van Chung said the tourism ministry has no legal grounds to demand that Vinh be punished for his discourse at the conference.
The Da Nang Tourism Association is overseen by the municipal administration, and “the ministry has gone beyond its authority to give orders to a unit it is not authorized to manage,” Chung added.
Lawyer Bui Quang Nghiem, from the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association, said the ministry can only ask Vinh to justify his statements if it has enough grounds to prove that the association chairman had defamed its reputation or interest.
On June 4, the tourism ministry issued a new dispatch to the Da Nang Tourism Association, asking to withdraw its previous document requesting punishment for Vinh as its content “was improper and misleading.”
The ministry said it accepts full responsibility for the inappropriate dispatch, and pledged to continue listening to feedback on Son Tra Peninsula planning.
The second dispatch was also signed by Deputy Minister Ai.
Ai has demanded that the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism “find the one responsible for preparing the controversial dispatch,” even though it was he who signed the document in the first place.
A satellite photo of Son Tra
The zoning in question was approved by the Vietnamese prime minister in November 2016, with the aim of developing a national tourism zone on Son Tra, with a total accommodation capacity of 1,600 rooms by 2030.
Shortly after the plan was announced, the Da Nang Tourism Association petitioned the plan to be adjusted in a way that allowed no more hotel rooms on the peninsula, in a bid to protect its forests and ecosystem.
On May 28, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam requested a three-month delay on the implementation of the plan to look for “a scientific response” to the petition of the Da Nang Tourism Association.
The May 30 conference was held at the deputy premier’s request.