Viet Nam News
With unspoiled beaches, ancient fishing villages, hundreds of serene islands covered with dense greenery and a national park with a diverse range of wild species, the Cát Bà Archipelago is truly a hidden gem for those in love with natural beauty. Hồng Vân reports.
Kayaking through the crystal waters of Lan Hạ, a small bay lying to the northeast of Cát Bà Archipelago, 30 kilometres from the port city of Hải Phòng, one has the opportunity to glimpse the white-headed langur, a species endemic to the archipelago and now found nowhere else on earth.
The Cát Bà langur, as it is commonly called, often sleeps in the caves and seeks food around the mountains – leaves, fresh shoots, flowers, tree barks and some fruits that are not palatable to humans. Visitors, therefore, can have a chance to see them as they travel among the islands.
There are currently just 60 langur individuals left, and the animals are known to only live on the islands of Cát Bà, according to the Cát Bà Langur Conservation Project.
The langur has become a symbol for the archipelago. The Cát Bà langur population is scattered around the islands in several isolated sub-populations. Some of these include all-female groups with no access to males and are therefore non-reproducing social units, according to the project.
On the water: Neahga Leonard (Second, Right), manager of Cát Bà Langur Conservation Project went on a field trip to study the conditions of the Cát Bà langur. Cát Bà archipelago is under the close management of Cát Bà National Park, the Management Board of Cát Bà Bay and the Management Board of Cát Bà Heritage.
Besides the langur, the Cát Bà Archipelago has more than 3,800 other species of insular and marine fauna and flora. Among them, 130 rare species are named in the Việt Nam and World Red Lists, among which, 76 species are found in the rare category of the IUCN, and 21 species are endemic.
With the rich values of natural beauty and biodiversity of the Cát Bà archipelago and shared marine ecosystem with world heritage Hạ Long Bay, Hải Phòng City is working with Quảng Ninh Province to finalise a dossier to nominate Hạ Long-Cát Bà as an expanded World Heritage Site.
Hạ Long-Cát Bà is currently on the Tentative List at UNESCO and the application will be sent to the Việt Nam cultural agency by February next year.
“The Cát Bà Archipelago is a highly bio-diverse centre with several especially rare species which have universal value. It is considered the most bio-diverse area in Việt Nam,” said professor Đỗ Công Thung from the Institute of Marine and Environment Resources in a leadership meeting held by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Hải Phòng on May 5.
“We recognise the unprecedented joint efforts of the two localities [Quảng Ninh Province and Hải Phòng City] in collaborating to renominate Hạ Long-Cát Bà. The biodiversity is no longer restrained in the territorial limit,” said Phạm Ngọc Thanh Hường, Culture Specialist from UNESCO Việt Nam, at the meeting.
The Hạ Long-Cát Bà Archipelago extension will be considered under two criteria –aesthetic value and geomorphic and physiographic value, and additionally two bio-diversity criteria, for a new World Heritage Site (WHS) nomination.
UNESCO has 10 criteria for selecting a WHS. Six of them are for cultural sites and the other four are for natural sites. To be added to the list, a site must be of "outstanding universal value" in at least one criterion.
Save the forest: There are currently different layers of environmental protection in Cát Bà, which include a biosphere reserve with a core zone, buffer zone and transition zone and a national park with special use area.
In 1994, Hạ Long Bay was inscribed as a natural WHS under the criterion of aesthetic value and geology.
The combined area of Hạ Long Bay and Cát Bà Archipelago is over 770 square kilometres, in which Hạ Long Bay World Heritage accounts for 434 sq.km including 775 islands and islets.
The Cát Bà Archipelago is under close management of the three bodies – Cát Bà National Park, the Management Board of Cát Bà Bay and the Management Board of Cát Bà Heritage.
There are currently different layers of environmental protection in Cát Bà, which include a biosphere reserve with a core zone, buffer zone and transition zone and a national park with special use area. Each has specific management requirements and policies, according to Thung.
“Taking the langur as an example. This species, listed as endangered, live mostly in seven areas in Cát Bà; therefore, the Hải Phòng authorities have made these seven areas strictly protected and bans any activities that may cause harm to the living and breeding of langur,” said Thung.
“The langur is a very sensitive species. If they smell humans nearby, or even from a kilometre away, they hide themselves or run away, not to mention the effect that construction activities have on the animals. It is necessary to limit development projects here,” said Nguyễn Hoàng Trí.
Mass tourism – ‘not the ultimate purpose of nomination’
"Most locations enjoy a tourism ‘boom’ after being recognised by UNESCO. But it is crucial to note that increasing tourism, especially mass tourism, is not the main aim of nomination," said Hường.
Việt Nam tends to draw more tourists while some other places are trying to cut down on the number of tourists or even stop tourism entirely, like Santorini (Greece), Koh Khai Nok (Thailand), Machu Pichu (Peru) or the whole of Bhutan, according to Cát Bà Langur Conservation project’s manager, Neahga Leonard.
Currently, Cát Bà welcomes around 1.7 million tourists per year, already more than the number of tourists that many of these other places get. Cát Bà is estimated to have 5-6 million tourists by 2020 and 8 to 10 million by 2030.
“The ultimate purpose of nomination is not for tourism. Normally, we get the title, the site becomes famous and we draw more tourists. Yet we are making a big mistake, not only in Cát Bà, but in nine biosphere areas and five world heritage sites in Việt Nam,” said Nguyễn Hoàng Trí, general secretary of Việt Nam National Committee for the UNESCO Programme "Man and Biosphere".
“The tourism industry is only a means towards sustainable development. Sometimes, we seem to turn the means into the purpose, leaving cement structures, and not natural beauty, as the legacy for future generations. It is tourism based on community that should be encouraged and invested in,” said Trí.
“Sometimes, we forget the main aim of nomination, which is to conserve the site. Once the site is nominated, the country has to put in place national responsibility and commitment to preserve the site for the international community,” said Bài.
Cycle of life: According to experts, Cát Bà should not develop mass tourism. It is tourism based on the community that should be encouraged and invested in.
Conservation, a core driver of UNESCO recognition
Besides mass tourism development, construction projects in Cát Bà are also a big concern for non-governmental organisations and the conservation community.
A high-end ecological tourism project was launched in Cát Hải district, Hải Phòng on May 14th.
Though the project is implemented outside the core zone of the biosphere reserve, the conservation community has concerns about its impact on the environment and biodiversity of the region. This project and others of its kind must be undertaken in a very careful manner.
“UNESCO has strict rules on the presence of projects inside WHS that threaten its outstanding universal values. We are confident that the relevant authorities will put in place a planning process that ensures that tourism does not threaten these values,” said Acting Country Representative of IUCN Việt Nam, Jake Brunner.
“Many of Việt Nam’s most beautiful coastal areas, including Cát Bà, are being targeted for large-scale tourism development. Việt Nam badly needs investment in tourism but this must be done in ways that don’t damage what’s so special about these places, keeps tourists coming back, and sustains jobs and revenue over the long term,” said Brunner.
As per the 1972 world heritage convention of UNESCO, "the major aim of nomination is to put the property into an international framework of protection," said Hường.
“Nomination is not only a matter of seeking an international title, but to preserve the property, to allow future generations to enjoy it, along with the natural and cultural resources that the country has to offer. This is the aim of world heritage recognition,” she added.
“Tourists come here because Việt Nam has a number of unique qualities that no other place has, especially its natural beauty and culture; and those things are sensitive, once they are damaged, we can’t get them back,” said Leonard.
“Development on this line needs to be taken in a careful and cautious manner.
“Cát Bà has a number of unique and special characteristics, especially natural beauty, biodiversity and endemic species, which are the very reasons [Việt Nam] is considering the expanded WHS nomination.
“We need to be very careful not to damage these particular aspects of Cát Bà,” said Leonard.
“The key thing here is that there is no conflict between conservation and development and tourism. People in the conservation community understand very clearly the need for development and tourism. We encourage and support it but development and tourism should be done in a long-term, responsible and sustainable manner, a manner that follows laws and international guidelines,” said Leonard.
“We can learn from the Tràng An case [nomination for Tràng An in Ninh Bình Province as a World Heritage Site] – working with investors for sustainable development, persuading them to narrow their projects [in protected areas],” said director of Việt Nam Cultural Heritage Conservation Fund, and representative of Việt Nam National Committee of UNESCO, Đặng Văn Bài.
“A few years ago, when we were discussing the nomination of Tràng An as World Heritage site, some disagreed with the nomination, but one of my points was that if Tràng An is not nominated, then the limestone mountains in Ninh Bình [where the site is located] would disappear over the next five years due to rock quarrying in the area,” said Bài.
After Tràng An was recognised, the quarries were forced to halt operations and miners moved to other areas.
“This is an example of UNESCO’s active contribution to protecting and preserving WHS.
“In the end, protecting heritage and pushing the economy is just a means to our ultimate goal of sustainable development, for our country and for the next generation.
“It is crucial that we do not sacrifice heritage for economic benefit, yet we also should not let development be hindered by heritage.” VNS