Nguyen Le Huy, Ph.D., head of the management board of Dong Van Stone Plateau in the northern province of Ha Giang, talks to Han Ngoc Lan about plans to develop the area and the challenges of doing so in a sustainable fashion.
Dong Van Stone Plateau is Viet Nam's first geological park and only the second of its kind in Southeast Asia (the other being Langkawi Geological Park in Malaysia). The plateau is 80 per cent limestone and contains the fossils of thousands of species of prehistoric creatures from as long as 600 million years ago. It is also home to many varied cultures that have sprung up over the centuries.
The plateau was recognised as a member of the Global Network of National Geoparks (GGN) in October 2010.
A subsequent master plan for the preservation and development of the site spanning the next eight years has recently been approved by the Prime Minister.
Inner Sanctum: Dong Van Stone Plateau is spread over four difficult mountainous districts which have historically struggled to develop economically. Have more opportunities to eradicate local poverty appeared since the plateau became a member of the GGN in 2010?
Yes, definitely. Provincial administrators have been carefully searching for ways to develop the stone plateau sustainably for some time, and when the plateau won GGN recognition in 2010, it marked a turning point in the plans for the area.
During the subsequent building process, we have received enthusiastic advice from experts from Viet Nam National University in Ha Noi, who recommend that the plateau should be developed in a way that would preserve and promote, rather than damage, its unique heritage.
The features found in other geoparks worldwide are very different from those of Dong Van Plateau. Most of them are predominantly tourist areas, which already have good infrastructures. They are not populated by many local residents, unlike Dong Van Plateau which has a population of over 250,000 people. This provides more challenges, as it is essential that any expansion takes place in parallel with socio-economic development and preservation of the area's unique bio-diversity. This is the new model for the global network of national geoparks.
In conclusion, our first priority is to preserve heritage. We will then look to sustainably boost tourism in the area, which is a sector promising to provide a source of subsistence and prosperity for the ethnic community living on the stone plateau.
Inner Sanctum: In order to successfully implement a model of both preserving and exploiting Dong Van Global Geopark, what activities have been carried out so far?
We had a major ceremony announcing our development master plan on April 11. It gave us an opportunity to explain our project to domestic and international friends, and hopefully it will go some way to attracting further investment.
In terms of preserving the heritage, we have paid special attention to education and improving public awareness about the values of the stone plateau. We have trained 600 local community leaders to spread information about protecting and managing the heritage among local people in local languages, overcoming the linguistic barriers.
We are currently focusing on broadcasting the image of Dong Van Stone Plateau in many ways. For example, we will build information centres describing the project at the airports in Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh City, allowing us to connect with domestic and international tourists.
Inner Sanctum: It is two years since Dong Van Stone Plateau became member of GGN. Any changes have taken place since then?
There have been many changes in the past two years. The first change, and also the most important one, is the newfound awareness the administrators and local mountainous ethnic people have about the value of the plateau's heritage. Let me give you an example. Not long ago, two of our staff who were assigned to examine the area of the plateau were arrested by the villagers because they were thought to be violating the heritage. It was not until they presented the documents proving that they were members of the Management Board that they were released.
The second change is the number of tourists. So far this year there have been 330,000 visitors to Ha Giang. Most of them have come to see the plateau. Just last March, we welcomed over 100,000 tourists, including many foreigners.
Inner Sanctum: There exists a conflict between preserving the area and exploiting it for tourism. How has the province dealt with this clash?
To avoid conflict, we have tried very hard to harmoniously combine heritage management and tourism development. The areas of the heritage are being strictly supervised, following the regulations of the Management Board and the four local People's Committees.
The project has created a department focused solely on preservation and scientific study, and we continue to work with experts from Viet Nam National University.
Inner Sanctum: What can Ha Giang Province do to attract more and more tourists to Dong Van Stone Plateau?
The province is oriented towards agricultural tourism, or in other words, tourism in which the visitors get to directly experience local farming practices. We can expand this area further.
However, there are still many obstacles facing the growth in this tourism. The number of visitors is increasing but currently the infrastructure is inadequate to meet this demand at weekends. Several projects for hotels and hostels have been approved already, which we hope will alleviate the problems. We believe that now we have officially announced our extensive plans to preserve, restore and develop the plateau, more and more investors will be attracted to the project. — VNS