Vietnam’s tourist island reopens with big dreams

Tour guide Lai Chi Phuc counted the days until travelers returned to the white sand beaches and thick tropical jungle of Vietnam’s Phu Quoc, a once poor fishing island that is pushing to become the next hot spot. vacation in Asia as pandemic restrictions relax.

About 200 South Koreans touched down on the island, located a few miles off Cambodia in the azure waters of the Gulf of Thailand, on Saturday after the launch of a vaccination passport program this month in Vietnam.

Among the arrivals was Tae Hyeong Lee, who was returning to the island for the third time and eager to head to the beach.

“It is wonderful to be here. It is the first time that I have traveled outside South Korea since the start of the pandemic,” he told AFP.

But others may avoid the lazy beach break in favor of action and entertainment as they move between a 12,000-room resort, an amusement park, an 18-hole golf course, a casino, a safari park and a miniature Venice.

The US $ 2.8 billion leisure complex, part of the ‘sleepless city’ model, opened six months ago as COVID-19 ravaged tourism around the world – and as other industry-dependent Asian countries, such as Thailand, were rethinking their mass tourism frameworks.

For Phuc, 33, who remembers a childhood in poverty where “everyone wanted to escape Phu Quoc”, the growing popularity of the island allowed him to return home after years of earning a living in as a seller in neighboring towns. of the Mekong Delta.

“But it’s also a shame,” he told AFP, lamenting the loss of the island’s palm-fringed beaches by seaside resorts.

Plastic flood

Ahead of Saturday’s reopening, staff at the resort town of Vinpearl – where arrivals are staying – swept the beaches, laid out cutlery on tables and set up deckchairs. Others were busy painting delicate flowers on conical hats.

“When we heard the visitors were coming back, I was so excited,” said service manager Ngo Thi Bich Thuong.

Before the 2019 pandemic, around five million people, including half a million foreigners – mostly from China, South Korea, Japan and Russia – were vacationing in Phu Quoc.

Vingroup – the extremely powerful conglomerate behind the new resort – is working to make the island “a new international destination on the world tourist map”.

To cope with the tourist boom, 40,000 hotel rooms have been built, planned or are under construction, vice-chairman of the Vietnamese Tourism Advisory Board Ken Atkinson told AFP – “that’s more of the keys to hotel they don’t get in Sydney, Australia “.

Popular vacation spots around the world, such as Phuket in Thailand, have given Vietnam a goal to strive for.

Atkinson took a group of senior Vietnamese government officials there in 2005 – but while Phuket’s vibrant international tourism scene has taken years to develop: “Vietnam tends to want to do it all at once,” he said. he noted.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think enough attention has been paid to what would be beneficial in the long term for the island,” he added.

Phu Quoc is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – the surrounding waters are filled with coral reefs and its beaches were once nesting sites for hawksbill and green turtles.

But no nesting has taken place in recent years, the United Nations body said in its latest assessment in 2018.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has warned of “an almost unimaginable flood of plastic” that is choking rivers, canals and marine life.

About 160 tonnes of waste – almost enough to fill 16 trucks – is generated every day, according to WWF, which says the island’s waste management is not suited to cope with the explosion in tourism.

“More and more tourists are very environmentally conscious. They don’t want to go to places where the beaches are littered with garbage or where the effluent is pouring into the sea,” Atkinson warned.

Pockets of paradise

But alongside the trash and top attractions – including the world’s longest non-stop three-rope cable car and Vietnam’s first teddy bear museum – there are still corners of heaven.

Chu Dinh Duc, 26, from mainland Vietnam, first saw Phu Quoc on the back of a motorcycle in 2017.

Driving through dense forests and meandering to the few remaining sleepy villages where fishermen cast their nets into the ocean at sunrise, he fell in love.

Two years later, he opened a simple homestay business for foreigners.

“My goal here is not to take a lot of their money,” he said. “But I want as much as possible to come.”

“If Phu Quoc remained underdeveloped, it would only be a pearl to be discovered.”

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