The Rise of a Vietnamese island to a Major Tourist Destination
The largest island in Vietnam, Phu Quoc, has all of the attributes a holiday destination could want: palm-fringed beaches, tropical rainforests, and rich culture. However, before the turn of the millennium, the paradise island was virtually unheard of and only visited by a few of the most adventurous backpackers. Slowly but surely, Phu Quoc gained an admirable reputation amongst travellers, which led to a staggering 2,000% growth in tourist arrivals between 2010 and 2019 (from 239,000 to 5.1 mil). Those numbers are expected to rise even further, to 7 million, by 2030. Once dependent on the exportation of fish sauce and green peppers, Phu Quoc's economy has therefore dramatically evolved. Similar patterns of change can be observed in tourist destinations around the world and are worth a closer examination.
Tourism and services are now the largest revenue gainer on the island, making up a massive share of 70 percent of its regional gross domestic product (RGDP). Remarkably, the regional income per person is almost double that of Vietnam's national average, standing at US$4,907. However, does the improvement in economic indicators automatically mean comparable improvements in the quality of life of the local population?
Changing lives: How has this impacted the local population?
The changing nature of the economy has meant that life on Phu Quoc has changed almost beyond recognition. Locals have found themselves switching from farming crops, to serving in restaurants, from fishing tuna, to driving taxis. Tourism has produced an incredible 36,000 jobs directly and supported 80,000 indirectly on the island. This has greatly helped decrease the regional poverty rate which is now below the national average, currently standing at 1.2%, by providing relatively well-paid employment opportunities. Transportation infrastructure has also drastically improved through new roads and a shiny, new airport. Before large-scale tourist arrivals, roads were mainly dirt tracks scattered with potholes. This previously made journeys over land long and often perilous. Finally, revenue and new demand derived from tourism have allowed for investment into state-of-the art healthcare facilities. Since 2010, eleven new hospitals have opened, which offer a considerably higher quality of care as international tourists demand better standards. However, concerns have been raised on how inclusive these changes have been.
Inclusive for all?
Despite its overall developmental success, it should be noted that the tourism industry on Phu Quoc is not entirely inclusive; meaning certain groups are not reaping the benefits from tourism and are being marginalised. This is mainly due to socio-economic factors such as education and training. Those who cannot communicate well in English tend to either be excluded from working in tourism or end up in less well-paid jobs such as cleaning. As tourist arrivals become increasingly international, the ability to communicate in a common language is needed. Better paid jobs within the sector, such as tour guides, tend to involve guest interaction and thus a good command of English is absolutely vital.
Similarly, the skills required for local residents to work in the tourism industry lag behind the speed with which tourism on the island develops. A recent study which surveyed 50 local businesses owners found that 95% felt their workers needed more training. If the local residents had a higher skillset, they could be more likely to become employed in the industry, as well as progress career wise and potentially earn higher wages. Therefore, to enhance the inclusion of development on Phu Quoc, barriers to enter and access the benefits of working in the tourism sector need to be overcome. One potential solution to this would be to increase government investment into education and training, which would allow workers to significantly improve their skills and access better living conditions in the future.
The downside of increased arrivals: Mass tourism
When large numbers of people visit a destination at the same time, it can pose enormous challenges to development as the environment and local communities are put under extreme pressure. Phu Quoc is no exception to this. As tourist arrivals skyrocketed, the demand for water rose sharply, which has led to shortages across the island. This issue is further exacerbated as the tourist high season is during the dry season and thus during a time of minimal rainfall. Environmental issues however, are not the only challenge that the island communities face as tourism increases. As foreign visitor numbers grow exponentially, a new influx of norms and ideologies interrupts the traditional way of living on the island. A recent study found that 68% of 190 local residents surveyed felt their way of life was being lost.
What individual tourists can do
It is therefore important to ensure that the tourism industry benefits both the tourists and the locals. Tourists can play a vital role in supporting the local economy and society in various ways:
1. Overnight stays: avoiding visiting a place just in the daytime. Staying longer and supporting local hotels.
2. Support for the local economy: using locally run restaurants, local tour guides, and locally made souvenirs. This way, the money goes directly to locals and is far more likely to stay within the local economy.
3. Exploration of non-popular areas: popular tourist traps tend to be overpriced and very busy. Instead, it could be interesting to explore the hidden gems off the beaten track.
4. Embracing local cultures and traditions: Becoming a temporary local, not a tourist.
5. Leaving no trace: Refraining from littering and damaging the natural environment
Tourism provides the essential tools that are needed to achieve better development of Phu Quoc. The revenue improves workers' wages and increases infrastructure investment. However, the island needs to act cautiously, and look beyond solely economic indicators. The main challenges for the future will be ensuring greater inclusivity for all and alleviating negative impacts of mass tourism, especially extensive water shortages and changing cultural and ideological dynamics. If tourism is to increase further or even just remain at an already historic high, it will need to be adapted to reduce the negative impacts that it can bring to the destination. The promotion of responsible tourism in combination with greater investment in education and training will be a big step forward towards ensuring that the overall living standards can further improve for all members of Phu Quoc's society.
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