Phu Quoc Island: Trouble in Paradise


Sao Bay, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam. Local communities rely heavily on the ocean to provide food, but it is becoming increasingly polluted.

Meddling by the Vietnamese government and an invasion of investors has put Phu Quoc island on course to becoming severely tarnished by international tourism, reports Jak Phillips
Many in authority will say that it’s important to protect wildlife and then eat an endangered sea turtle for dinner

The sand swallows your feet. Azure water nuzzles the ankles. From the not too distant mangrove swamps, exotic species beckon you in with their mating call. Everything about Phu Quoc Island is inviting and as you trace the Gulf of Thailand’s waters out to the glittering horizon, it’s easy to see why Duong Dong beach is considered among the world’s best.

But diverting your gaze to the beach-head, the romance is quickly washed away. Bobbing gently in the surf, cloudy condoms, soiled tampons and crumpled coke cans alert you to the fact that something’s afoot in paradise. And it’s about to get worse.

Situated some 40km west of the Vietnamese coastal town Ha Tien, Phu Quoc is an island on the cusp of change. Historically known for its production of fish sauce and black pepper, the haven (permanent population just 90,000) is now being courted by the tentacles of global tourism; and its sting is beginning to be felt. 

Vietnam’s government is the driving force behind development plans for this Singapore-sized island, setting out a blueprint to create a “major tourism destination and regional hub” by 2020. Around 500,000 people visited the island last year and the ambitious authorities aim to increase this figure to an eye-watering 2-3 million by the end of the decade. 

With exponential growth inevitably comes exponential development and the centrepiece so far has been the $771 million international airport, which opened in December 2012, amid much fanfare and some trepidation that the tourist influx could prove both enriching and ruinous for this peaceful island. As it is, lucrative deals with major airlines have proved elusive and the airport currently only processes around 10 flights a day. The much vaunted tourism boom appears to be on temporary hiatus, but with the money at stake – the economy has already grown nearly 500 per cent in the last 10 years – it will undoubtedly return.

Many in authority will say that it’s important to protect wildlife and then eat an endangered sea turtle for dinner

The goal is to transform from wild and wondrous to developed and divine, but at the moment, this adolescent island is pockmarked with patches of concrete acne. As we were driven from the southern harbour to our Duong Dong beach hotel, we passed a curious mix of wildlife and workmen. While much of Phu Quoc remains preserved, there are noticeable numbers of half-finished concrete buildings dotted along the roadside, together with sporadic stretches of highway, the result of poor planning and the unforeseen global recession. 

“The eyesores are typical,” says hotel manager Amelie Tran, “of the authorities’ haphazard approach to development.” She recounts how a single-hectare plot next to her Cassia Cottage Hotel sold for $3 million in March 2012, but the speculative developers were reluctant to spend more actually building due to the recession. In a style all too familiar for those with experience of Vietnam, the developers destroyed a 50-year-old forest before hearing of a better plot and halting construction. “As they chopped down the trees you could see all the animals fleeing, it was like a scene from Bambi,” she adds glumly. 

The island’s wildlife could yet be the biggest victim of development. While the additional construction will inevitably have an impact, there is already the major problem of endangered species being valued more for their edibility than ecology. “One of the toughest challenges is raising awareness among locals and also authorities about conservation,” says Khoi Nguyen, CEO of Wildlife At Risk Vietnam. “At present, many people in authority will say at a meeting that it’s important to protect wildlife and then eat an endangered sea turtle or dugong for dinner.” With this approach to conservation, islanders are not exactly inspired with confidence over their leaders’ commitment to sustainable development.

There are also concerns about the water supply. Aside from polluted water leaking into the ocean, the island relies on a solitary fresh water source - Duong Dong Lake in the middle of its northern forest – which Khoi says is rumoured to have been sized up for development. He believes any building on, or even near the lake, could have disastrous consequences for the island and its wildlife, citing the impact sporadic road building has had on some island species. 

With its eco-system already finely-balanced, there’s a genuine concern the island could fall victim to an Icarus complex. Regardless of the far-reaching plans, Phu Quoc’s primitive infrastructure is already creaking under the weight of its new guests. With just three generators, the place is hardly blessed with an abundance of power and the intermittent supply already poses problems for local businesses. “We get major power cuts every few days, so they need to sort that out if they’re serious on capitalising from this airport,” says Vancouver’s Gregory Lavier, owner of the popular Phuong Binh Guesthouse.

Given the island’s chequered past, it’s remarkable how much progress has been made already. When Vietnam was colonised by the French, the island was used as a notoriously tough holding pen for outspoken critics of the regime. The prison then passed into the hands of the US-backed South Vietnam puppet regime, at its 1973 peak holding 40,000 dissidents and prisoners of war in what were often brutal conditions. And the violence didn’t stop there. A troop of Khmer Rouge soldiers took advantage of the post-war confusion to briefly invade in 1975, holding 500 Vietnamese civilians captive in one of a series of incursions that would eventually lead to the 1978-79 Vietnamese-Cambodian war. Little remains of the prisoner camp today, which ironically, the government hopes will prove an attraction when the island is eventually colonised by western tourists. 

Phu Quoc is blessed with a remarkable wealth of wildlife. The national park is teeming with exotic species, while, in defiance of the litter, the coral-rich archipelagoes to the south of the island offer outstanding scope for snorkeling. Despite the unfortunate plight of the dugong and sea turtles, the coral reefs also provide one of the island’s few conservation success stories. 

Taking a break from following the schools of retina-dazzling fish on a technicolour treasure trail, tourist Jane Robertson reveals the island’s innate charms were one of the main reasons she returned for a third visit. “There’s no getting away from the fact that this is one of earth’s last great treasures,” says the 53-year-old from Leatherhead, UK. “I first came here seven years ago and although it’s still stunning, the changes have been drastic. Before, the beaches were empty, but that’s not always the case now and it doesn’t feel as natural thanks to the explosion of roads and hotels. I’m concerned Phu Quoc could go the same way as Ko Phi Phi in Thailand. It was a beautiful set of islands, but when the tsunami hit in 2004 the big boys muscled their way in and locals lost everything – I can see a similar thing happening here.”

Jane’s fears surmise the crux of the Phu Quoc question: Can the island retain its naive and remote charm, or will it follow in the footsteps of places like Bali and Phuket to become defiled by unrelenting waves of tourism? 

Perhaps spurred by the prospect of losing out to rival havens, the government seems determined to push forward with its plans. At a March workshop on Vietnamese tourism, Kai Schroter, general director of EuroCham Tourism and Hospitality Sector Committee warned that confidence among European investors in Vietnam is declining. He said: “Investors need an attractive and dynamic business environment, a fair playground, transparent administrative procedures.” Although the last point is likely to go unanswered, infrastructure projects are swinging into action to make Phu Quoc marketable.

A $389 million transport scheme is well underway to develop highways, bridges and An Thoi Port, while a further $240 million has been earmarked for another road project. In early 2014, a 55.8km under-sea cable project will begin in a bid to link the island to the national grid and there could also be a power plant built on the island itself, with plans for a liquefied natural gas facility currently under discussion. 

But whether these schemes will be managed any better than the previous attempts at development remains to be seen. As Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre recently lamented, “Eight years since the Government approved the master plan, Phu Quoc still looks like a massive construction site messy with hundreds of idle projects that are not in line with the general planning.” The paper also claimed that just 1,800 hectares of the island had been set aside for development under the government’s master plan, but in reality, the total land area earmarked for would-be tourism projects had almost reached 7,000 hectares. Undeterred, the government has pressed ahead and in April, the tourism associations of Hanoi and HCM City announced that, in conjunction with Vietnam Airlines, they would be offering discounted flights of up to 58 per cent to inject impetus into tourism promotion. And though international flights remain unsecured, foreign investors are still circling Phu Quoc with shark-like intent – as evidenced by a high profile January visit to the island by a delegation of US businesses. 

While Phu Quoc’s descent is by no means set in stone, it will take serious efforts to ensure the island retains its charm. Sadly for wildlife and locals who don’t have a voice, here, as in most parts of the world, money talks. 

A freelancer currently dodging mopeds in Hanoi, Jak has written for well-known titles including VICE and TIME Magazine, as well as many lesser-known brands he'd rather not mention.

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