Southern water wonderland pivots to eco-tourism

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The Đồng Tháp Mười (Plain of Reeds) region in the Mekong Delta is just hitting the peak of flooding season, a time for the southern province of Long An to show off the charming natural beauty of its vast wetland areas.

Melaleuca forest at Tan Lap Floating Village is seen from above. — VNA/VNS Photo Minh Hưng

Like many other regions in the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has all but wiped out tourism in the region, but it is now mobilising a wide-scale plan to recover.

Coronavirus aside, the province faces another threat. With its large swathes of low lying wetland, it is at particular risk from climate change, with a study from Cần Thơ University estimating that if sea levels rose by just one metre almost half the province would be underwater. Long An needs tourism but it also needs to be eco-conscious.

It is with this in mind that it wants to pivot to green tourism with a focus on the eco-friendly “smoke-free” industry, putting its diverse waterways, wetlands and attractive eco-biological tourism activities such as botanical gardens, wildlife and forest discovery.

Located in the Mekong Delta area in the Đồng Tháp Mười sub-region, the province is a gateway connecting HCM City, the country’s largest economic centre, to all the far southwestern provinces.

Currently, the province is taking advantage of its unique natural scenery during the flooding season to lure visitors back to the area after the long social distancing of the pandemic.

Tourism agencies are making the most of short-term tours with departures from HCM City to popular tourist destinations, including the ancient house of hundreds of pillars in Long Hựu Đông Commune, Tân Lập floating village, Đồng Tháp Mười eco-tourism area, and Láng Sen Reserve.

The Ramsar Convention signed in 1971 is an international treaty for the conservation of wetlands, and Láng Sen Reserve was recognised as the seventh Ramsar site in Việt Nam in 2015.

The site, located in the south of Long An, still preserves the original ecosystem of the Đồng Tháp Mười Wetlands in the country's Mekong Delta, similar to Tràm Chim National Park in the neighbouring province of Đồng Tháp.

Visitors are always impressed by the hospitality of local people when visiting Đất Phương Nam Farm in Long An. — VNA/VNS Photo Nguyễn Luân

Another well-known​​ destination is Phước Lộc Thọ Ancient Village (in Hữu Thanh Commune, Đức Hòa District), a 5-hectare area that is home to 22 ancient houses and thousands of antiquities.

The eco-tourism site of Cánh Đồng Bất Tận (Endless Field) in Mộc Hóa District, has a number of services such as saunas, soaking in medicinal herbs, visiting primaeval melaleuca forests as well as a wealth of rare flora and fauna.

Tân An, the capital of the province, only 47km from HCM City, is home to the ancient Thiên Phước Pagoda, Long An Museum, Long An Monument Park, and the Mausoleum of Nguyễn Hùynh Đức. In addition, there are a number of new private tourist attractions in Long An such as Southern Land Organic Farm, the Seven Wonders of the World Park and Happyland.

While it is obvious that the province has huge resources and advantages in terms of tourism development, harnessing them in a sustainable fashion is another matter, and requires the locality to create unique experience with their own characteristics, officials and experts said.

Chairman of Long An Provincial People's Committee Nguyễn Văn Út said he believed that a key way for the province to enhance its appeal would be by closely following the provincial tourism development master plan with a vision to 2030, effectively exploiting its local comparative advantages.

“The province’s tourism value is created based on specific characteristics of local tourism resources and geographical conditions. They include Đồng Tháp Mười wetland eco-system, cultural activities, entertainment spaces with quality service,” the official said.

“Also from this strength, the province can build appropriate mechanisms and promulgate policies for tourism and travel businesses, paying attention to investment in local diversified tourism products and promotion programmes.”

The Director of the Long An Province's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Nguyễn Anh Dũng, said eco-tourism products associated with the Đồng Tháp Mười region were considered highlights of the province.

"For example, Láng Sen Wetland Reserve in the communes of Vĩnh Đại, Vĩnh Lợi và Vĩnh Châu A, Tân Hưng District, retains many natural and unspoiled features and is less affected by humans. With 4,800 hectares, and home to over 300 species of wild plants and vertebrates, including 13 species listed in the Viêt Nam Red Book, the reserve is one of the top destinations to attract tourism to Long An," Dũng said.

"Another eco-tourism site, Tân Lập Floating Village, has charming river scenery, lotus flowers and water lilies blooming on the canal, and is a unique route through the melaleuca forest. The seasonal food has become an experience and the resort destination brings many impressions to visitors."

A corner of the melaleuca forest in the floating village of Tân Lập. — VNA/VNS Photo Nguyễn Luân

The Plain of Reeds is also home to Cánh Đồng Bất Tận tourist area which offers visitors a feeling of relaxation, comfort and is suitable for discovery, travel and healthcare due to its cool and pure space amid the scent of Việt Nam's unique primaeval melaleuca forests, according to the official.

Bùi Đắc Thắng, director of the area’s research centre, said as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic was under control, the Cánh Đồng Bất Tận tourism area would be ready to welcome back visitors with products and services focusing on presenting experiences, such as the "Forest of Herbal Medicines" tour, which gives people the chance to participate in the distillation of herbal essential oils and enjoy the specialities of the floating season

Aside from eco-tourism, historical-cultural relics and craft villages are also central to Long An tourism. The province has 121 heritages, of which 21 have national recognition.

With its special and unique tourist offerings, Long An is now concerned with creating a solid brand so that the industry can be an important economic sector. It is said that a rising tide lifts all the boats, and so the province wants an enhanced tourism industry to benefit all people and authorities at all levels.

Though Long An tourism is outstanding, many of the province’s resources have not been used to their full potential.

Dr Ngô Thanh Loan from HCM City National University and Lê Hoàng Quốc Việt from Taylor's University in Malaysia suggested solutions to create added value for tourism in Long An, using Cần Đước District as a good example of developing the industry in a wetland region.

"With features of wet-rice traditional culture, the area has many interlaced rivers and canals. By exploring and conquering nature, fighting against foreign invaders and building the homeland, the ancestors have handed down much cultural heritage such as the House of Hundred Pillars, Vạn Phước Temple, the worshipping place of the Nguyễn Quang Đại, and Master Ba Đợi, one of the ancestors of cải lương (reformed opera) in the South," Loan said.

“Cần Đước should be a highlight of tourism as it is home to many famous traditional crafts such as mat weaving, boat building, wood carving and puff pastry making.”

Other experts suggested the province should pay attention to waterway traffic for tourism development. Waterway routes connecting HCM City and Cần Đước have long been used as the main route for traders to transport and exchange goods between HCM City and the wetland region.

In addition, the province also needs to increase the quantity and improve the quality of direct tours from HCM City to the Plain of Reeds, particularly after the pandemic is under control.

In the first 10 months of 2021, the number of visitors to Long An reached 290,000, down 40 per cent compared to the same period last year. The province has set a target of welcoming about 420,000 visitors in 2022, including 2,000 foreigners.

If the province is able to successfully pivot to eco-travel and effectively highlight its incredible wetlands, waterways and cultural heritage, it could be all set to be one of the finest tourist magnets in the country.

Source: VNS