Ha Long Bay’s postcard-perfect karst islets have long attracted travellers to its Unesco-approved seascape. In 2017, the destination (population circa 1,500), in northern Vietnam’s Quang Ninh province, welcomed almost 7 million international and domestic visitors, according to website Halong Bay Tourism. The region’s tourism department hopes to receive up to 16 million tourists by the end of next year, “and to rake in VND30-40 trillion (US$1.3-1.7 billion) in revenue”, it states, on its website.

Taking a major step towards achieving that goal, on December 30, Vietnam opened Van Don International Airport, which considerably cuts travel time to Ha Long Bay for overseas visitors. What was once an eight-hour round trip from Hanoi is now just over an hour from an airport that, when fully operational, will connect the bay with 35 cities, including Hong Kong, Macau and 10 in mainland China.

Halong Bay’s Cat Ba: a jewel in Vietnam’s island crown

The airport was unveiled alongside a new 60km highway, which reduces the drive time between Hanoi and Van Don to two hours and 30 minutes, and an international cruise port capable of simultaneously accommodating two liners with a combined carrying capacity of 8,460 passengers and crew. If that isn’t a recipe for disastrous overtourism, Destinations Known doesn’t know what is.

As far back as August 2012, travel journalist Mary O’Brien wrote in Australian publication Traveller, “the reality behind the picture-postcard views is worrying”.

“When I visited […] our boat was surrounded by container vessels,” she continued. “The beaches near docks and piers are often strewn with rubbish and travel sites have noted complaints from visitors about pollution.”

In the years since, similar observations have been made countless times across social-media platforms and on web forums. Tourists complain of being shepherded to the same overcrowded sights – Surprise Cave seems to earn its name more for its hordes and gaudy illuminations than its rock formations – and about the amounts of debris in the sea. Last summer, volunteers collected 741kg of waste from Coc Cheo and Ang Du beaches, in Ha Long Bay.

And it is not just the visible waste that is a concern. According to English-language online newspaper VietNamNet Bridge, in July last year as much as 80 per cent of local domestic waste water was being released, untreated, into the sea, which does not an attractive bay make.

In the same month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) hired consultants to advise on tourism and waste management at the Unesco site. Their findings, published on January 5, conclude that “rapid increases in visitor numbers and pollution have damaged the reputation of Ha Long Bay, especially in the eyes of foreigners”.

Unless the custodians of the destination clean up their act, and quickly, the engine of growth the country is counting on – tourism revenue – “risks stalling”. Unlike the planes, buses and cruise ships currently bearing down on Ha Long Bay.


Travelling to Indonesia? Make sure your passport is in good shape

Indonesian immigration authorities have cracked down on tourists travelling with damaged passports in recent months, after the story of a British couple who flew to Bali in October but were denied entry because of a travel document with a missing chunk – “the dog tried to eat it” was their excuse – became international tabloid fodder.

According to a January 2 report in daily newspaper The West Australian, authorities in Indonesia have begun enforcing a US$5,000 fine on airlines that allow travellers with damaged passports to board flights to the Southeast Asian nation and passengers at Perth airport were being turned away because of these tighter restrictions.

Speaking to The West Australian, a passenger whose partner had been refused boarding of a Batik Air flight to Bali was told that 20 tourists had been stopped from travelling to Bali for the same reason “in the past month”.


Venice to launch a tourist tax for day trippers

Venice has become the reluctant poster child for overtourism. La Serenissima – “the most serene” – is anything but as an estimated 20 million annual visitors, most believed to be day trippers, descend on the sinking city’s narrow alleyways and clog the bridges over its canals.

Overnight visitors are subject to a hotel tax of up to 5 (US$6) a night per person, but those who don’t stay have been able to avoid such charges. Until now.

On December 30, mayor Luigi Brugnaro announced on Twitter that the city would implement a tourist tax on day trippers, although there is no news yet on how much that might be. Other destinations at risk from overtourism – Ha Long Bay, we’re looking at you – should stay tuned.