According to the committee, the order follows many complaints from tourists about disorganised tours and lack of transparency in the fees charged.

“To improve services and prevent losses to the industry and taxes due to the province, the committee has told all boat tour agents to publicise their prices in the media in advance.”

The people’s committee has also asked relevant agencies to conduct a market survey and recommend prices for tours and overnight stays on Halong Bay.

“These rates will be fixed for at least three months and published on provincial website and Quang Ninh online newspaper.”

In addition, boats in Halong Bay have been banned from stopping at floating fishing villages during tours since the start of this month.

The committee chairman, Nguyen Van Doc, said the “move was aimed at preventing tourists from being disturbed, overcharged or ripped off, which was a common occurrence” when they stopped near the floating fishing houses.

“Captains of vessels that violated the ban will have their licences revoked and will be not be allowed to operate cruises around the bay effective the next day,” he said.

Halong Bay Management Board vice head, Do Duc Thang, said the board had received many complaints from both international and domestic tourists about rip-offs and fraudulent activities on its hotline. The main culprits are the floating fishing houses.

“These fishing houses are temporarily set up in the middle of the bay by local residents. Some are established by residents from other fishing villages. They profit by selling seafood to tourists.”

He added: “They are not on the province’s registered seafood trading list and they are not a stop-off place for tours.”

However, many boats ignore the ban and anchor at these fishing houses. According to the board’s estimation, there are about 650 floating fishing houses scattered around the bay, and many are a port of call for tour boats. Communities identified for scamming on seafood prices are Ba Hang, Cua Van, Vong Vieng and Cong Dam.

The vice head said Ba Hang was one of the worst places for overcharging tourists. Ba Hang is a temporary fishing village with more than 30 households, that mostly earn a living from aquaculture and farming, as well as selling snacks to tourists.

Earlier this year, a tourist from Thailand was reportedly forced to pay VND11.5 million (US$552) for a 6 kg fish in Ba Hang Village. Sellers even threatened to tie up the boat if he refused to pay.

To clamp down on scams, the province has also established a tourism inspection force recruiting inspectors and police in tourism, environment, transport and construction.

However, the decision has yet to receive support from tourist enterprises and residents of the fishing villages.

The Halong-based Thanh Nien Co Ltd tour manager, Tran Thi Hoa, said banning tour boats from fishing houses would not solve the problem.

“Overcharging can happen anywhere. We have heard complaints from tourists in Bai Chay Beach and the night market as well.”

He said the company had stopped mooring at floating fishing villages since early this month.

“Visiting fishing houses, seeing different kinds of marine creatures and taking photos are among the leisure activities of our tourists. It’s much more interesting than seeing cooked seafood on the boat or seafood sold at the market.”

The company handles about 1,000 tourists on trips to the bay annually of which 40% are foreigners.

“It’s hard to say how the ban will affect our businesses as it is not the peak season and it’s only two weeks since the ban took effect.”

Halong Bay is located in Quang Ninh province, 160 km east of the Vietnamese capital Hanoi.

It is considered the most popular sightseeing destination in northern provinces and was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and the world’s New 7 Wonders of Nature in April 2012 by New Open World Corporation, an associate of the New 7 Wonders Foundation.

By Wanwisa Ngamsangchaikit - TTR Weekly - September 26, 2012