Hoi An debate: To fee or not to fee

April 10, 2023 | 05:00 pm PT
Vu Ngoc Bao Lawyer
"Let's meet at the slope near the coast and the Jesus statue," Kien, a friend, texted me as I proposed to join his volunteer group to clean trash near tourist areas of Vung Tau.

The area we mentioned was where many tourists parked their scooters before hiking up to see the statue of Jesus, where they could have a panoramic view of the whole city, or could walk across to Hon Ba Islet when the tides are low. Vung Tau has become more and more famous in recent years, with its long beaches, various attractions, and short distance from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), only a bit over 100 kilometers away.

Although tourists come with a large amount of money that promotes the city’s economy, they also carry some negative things, such as constant traffic jams, tourist buses driving recklessly to get more guests, motorbikes races orchestrated by young hooligans, and tsunamis of trash crashing the coast and littering the streets.

These issues should have been managed by the city government, with some support from local communities to maintain order. Nevertheless, cities like Vung Tau are barely hanging on thanks to the efforts of local citizens like Kien who voluntarily clean the cities, a small David fighting the Goliath of social issues brought in by tourism.

Although tourism should be allowed to stimulate local economies, local governments need to actively manage the negative influences of tourism. One of the most straightforward ways is to charge fees to tourists to manage the influx of tourists, which is especially effective for cultural heritage areas that usually need great efforts to maintain order.

One main cultural heritage area that is considering charging entrance fees is Hoi An old town in Quang Nam. Rather than chase after economic benefits at all costs, authorities decided that from May 15, all tourists need to purchase compulsory entrance tickets before entering the old town. The tickets will cost VND80,000 ($3.4) for domestic tourists and VND120,000 for international tourists. The revenue raised through the fees would contribute to the conservation of the old town.

Following public objections, the town has decided to postpone the fee collection until it can find a solution with wide acception.

Ticket sales have gone on for a long while, but have not been strictly enforced.

Research from an international conference on heritage conservation hosted in Vietnam in 2018 pointed out that tourism contributes 67% of Hoi An’s GDP, with a total estimated ticket income of different attractions in Hoi An reaching $7.8 million in 2016, despite weak enforcement, with approximately 15,000 tourists visiting daily. The large influx, combined with the narrow geographical limits of Hoi An Old Town, resulted in an acute need for frequent maintenance and conservation activities to keep Hoi An in top shape and make tourism a sustainable and long-term source of income for the town.

Local governments in other areas in Vietnam have also slowly approached this method to control the tourist influx and build a more sustainable model of tourism. A primary example in Quang Binh Province is Son Doong Cave, the world's largest natural cave, which only allows tourist access on a limited basis and at a high cost.

Other areas in the world applying similar ticket policies include Amsterdam Old Town in the Netherlands and Angkor Wat Towers in Cambodia, both of which charge noticeable ticket prices to self-fund their maintenance and conservation activities.

Selling tickets is not new in Hoi An, as large tourist groups still have to purchase them. Nevertheless, statistics show that approximately only 40% of tourists, mostly international ones, purchase tickets. Hoi An loses large amounts of income from individual and small-group tourists.

This movement towards compulsory ticket sales, to me, is a welcoming move by the Hoi An government. What remains to be done is to find an efficient operating mechanism and maintain transparency regarding the income and fund management.

Rather than purchasing-presenting tickets manually, local governments could attempt to implement newer technologies, potentially AI-powered recognition systems, to make selling tickets as effortless as possible, not only for the tourists, but also for operating staff.

Additionally, with great power comes great responsibility. Although Hoi An has a right to charge an entrance fee, as a publicly governed tourist attraction, the heritage site needs to utilize the money gained efficiently and transparently. Tourists would only pay for the tickets if they know that the money they spent is for a greater good, and it is the managing entities, including Hoi An and Quang Nam local governments, who are responsible to keep the system transparent.

Managing and conserving heritage sites takes a great deal of effort and financial resources. The only sustainable way to do this is to let the tourists, who enjoy their experience at the heritage sites, contribute to the maintenance.

*Vu Ngoc Bao is a law expert who currently studies at the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management.

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