Vietnam battles erosion of beaches – and of tourism

Walking along Cua Dai is like visiting a beach-restoration technology exhibition, with efforts ranging from stone seawalls to fiber-and-sand wave breakers.

Coco Liu
On Cua Dai Beach, Vietnam, tourists huddle behind an artificial barrier designed to halt beach erosion. Since a typhoon tore through this tourist destination two years ago, few visitors are coming. Extreme weather that scientists link partly to climate change is threatening Vietnam's promising tourist industry.

As dusk falls on this landmark Vietnamese beach, Hung Hoa is about to close her seafood restaurant. It is only six o’clock.

“Nobody is coming here anyway,” sighs Mrs. Hung. Her restaurant has 10 dining tables; even though it is supper time, all of them are empty.

Once a popular tourist destination, Cua Dai beach is now a deserted place. Not far from Hung’s restaurant looms an abandoned lifeguard tower. There is no music to be heard and you rarely come across visitors. Instead, you see huge sandbags piled everywhere against the sea.

The desolation dates from 2014, Hung explains, when a powerful typhoon hit Vietnam. Giant waves driven by strong winds swallowed a big chunk of Cua Dai beach, and many coconut trees fell into the sea. Since then, Hung, like many restaurant owners here, has seen her business decline.

Such stories have become much more common in Vietnam in recent years as natural disasters seemingly caused by climate change take an increasing toll on tourism, one of the country’s major industries.

Vietnam is no stranger to typhoons and flooding. But a changing climate is making things even worse.  A 2010 World Bank report warned that the country is experiencing longer typhoon and flood seasons and that “storms are tracking into new coastal areas.”

More frequent extreme weather events are not only dissuading foreign visitors, they are threatening the existence of the attractions they might come to see. A record flood in 2009, for instance, submerged the entire ancient town of Hoi An including its iconic Japanese bridge. Only a huge effort saved the 300-year-old wooden structure.

At stake also is natural beauty. Ca Mau Cape, Vietnam’s southernmost point and a paradise for bird watchers, is now being gradually washed away by fierce tides and rising sea levels.

And on current trends, things will only get worse. By the end of the century, rising seas are expected to encroach on one-third of the country’s national parks and nearly one quarter of its key biodiversity areas, according to a report published in 2014 by the World Tourism Organization. 

And that is bound to have an impact on tourism, officials worry.

“Rising sea levels could engulf beaches and other natural resources in coastal areas, damage cultural destinations, and flood tourism infrastructure, costing businesses enormous amounts of time and money,” warned Dang Thi Bich Lien, deputy minister for Culture, Sports and Tourism, at a recent conference.

The economic sectors on which the Vietnamese have traditionally depended, such as fisheries and agriculture, have already suffered from climate change. Over the past few months, the worst drought in 90 years has dried up rice paddies and shrimp ponds in the Mekong Delta – the source of 90 percent of the country’s rice exports and 60 percent of shrimp and fish exports.

Although it's hard for scientists to say how much climate change may be affecting the intensity of storms, the International Panel on Climate Change voices "high confidence" of climate effects including "submergence, coastal flooding, and coastal erosion." 

Vietnam's government is counting on tourism to help boost the economy. Last year, tens of millions of international and domestic travelers contributed nearly 7 percent of Vietnam’s economic output. The government expects this figure to hit 10 percent by 2020. But what happened to Cua Dai beach and other tourist destinations casts a shadow over such ambitions.

Twenty minutes drive from the ancient town of Hoi An, a United Nations-designated World Heritage site, Cua Dai beach was once  a must-see for beach lovers. Locals still remember a white sandy beach stretching a hundred meters into the sea, covered with colorful clusters of wild flowers and coconut trees. But now, all that stands between the waves and buildings is a tiny beach, in some places no beach at all.

While coastal erosion is part of natural shoreline movement, experts say the damage to Cua Dai beach has been accelerated by rapid development and extreme weather events.

 “In 2014, the beach seemed to disappear overnight,” recalls Mr. Nguyen, an official of Hoi An’s Protection Management Board who only gave his surname.  “It was during a typhoon. When people woke up in the morning, they found the beach was no longer there.” 

With the beach shrinking, tourism businesses along the coast are beginning to feel the pinch. Those hotels still in business have found it increasingly challenging to satisfy guests.  

“People come here for the beach,” says Cao Thi Phi Yen, a client relations manager at Golden Sands Resort and Spa, a luxury hotel in Cua Dai beach. “If they don’t see a nice beach, they will complain. We have had a lot of complaints,” she says.

To protect what remains of the beach, Golden Sands and other hotels have invested heavily in dyke construction. Walking along Cua Dai is like visiting a beach-restoration technology exhibition, with solutions ranging from concrete levees to stone seawalls to wave breakers resembling shipping containers, woven from synthetic fibers and packed with dredged sand.

Although these measures have kept the hotels safe, “this is a temporary solution,” says Nguyen Trung Viet, director of the Central Region College of Technology, Economics and Water Resources in Hoi An. Simply building a dyke in one place won’t stop erosion but will drive the problem elsewhere, he says.

“This local countermeasure may affect or harm other regions,”  such as An Bang, a nearby beach where tourism is now flourishing, he warns.

Officials in Hoi An are searching for a long-term solution, but that will take time and they lack the needed technical know-how to solve the problem, they complain. And even if their efforts do prevent future erosion, that might have come too late for some businesses.

Hung, the seafood restaurant owner in Cua Dai, has seen her business make bigger losses each year since the destructive 2014 typhoon. Once she employed 10 people; now she is down to four.

“I used to have many customers, but now I would be very happy if I could have one customer each day,” Hung says. “Today, I sold food worth only $10. This is still considered good. Other restaurants didn’t sell anything.”  

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