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.

he 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.”

By Mercedes Hutton - The South China Morning Post - January 9, 2019