“Being an ecotourism host brings us so much joy – it’s fun to have visitors!” said Tran Thi Soi after serving us homemade dark purple giác berry juice in her family’s isolated home stay, nestled in the mangroves of Mui Ca Mau National Park (MCMNP).
Tran and her family are something new in this part of the Vietnam Delta: ecotourism hosts. Her family is one of five taking part in an ecotourism pilot project supported by WWF to create sustainable livelihoods in the area that benefit both people and the park.
Before her family became ecotourism hosts, few visitors ever came to her home in the park's buffer zone. It takes more than two hours by car and then by boat through a maze of mangroves to reach her home perched on a narrow strip of land between canals in the wetland forest. Any visitors that did make the trek only came for a quick trip to see the End Point tower, which marks the southernmost tip of Vietnam. But now those tourists stay to experience life in the mangroves and Tran couldn’t be happier.
And it gives the people of Mui Ca Mau another incentive to conserve the mangroves, which are a vital protection for the communities themselves. The mangroves form a buffer between the land, sea and Mekong River, helping to maintain this patch of the Delta and shielding communities against natural disasters. Their roots capture sediment coming down the river, helping prevent erosion, and create a physical barrier to shelter the land from rising seas and increasingly violent storms as the climate changes.
It is a clear example of the importance of wetlands in reducing the risk of natural disasters - the theme of this year's World Wetlands Day on February 2nd.
Tran showed off the covered patio her family built for tourists to eat and relax, overlooking the canals where her husband and two sons raise fish, crabs, clams, and shrimp. Like most families in this part of the Vietnam Delta, their main form of income is aquaculture – though that is now starting to change thanks to their new business. It’s safe to say their entire lives are built around the water.
Tourists are very interested in experiencing this fishing culture, which is unique to this part of Vietnam, according to Mr Hieu, the Head of the MCMNP Ecotourism and Environmental Education Department. At the Tran home stay, visitors can paddle out in traditional canoes to pull up crab traps and feel for clams in the tangle of mangrove roots. In season, overnight guests can even try shrimp fishing at midnight with the family. Tran and her daughter then fry, steam, and grill the catch into a mouthwatering seafood feast.
The park’s wild inhabitants are another draw. MCMNP is home to 93 species of birds, many of which flock to the mangroves near the Tran home. To take advantage of this, WWF helped the family build a bird watching tower and provided binoculars and bird watching books. Bird watching is now a major attraction at their home stay, and many guests stay overnight just to observe the birds at dawn and dusk, when they leave and return to their resting spots.
Without mangrove forests and a healthy Mekong River bringing sediment downstream and fish to spawn, these communities’ livelihoods and very homes could cease to exist. Outside factors, like poorly planned hydropower dams further up the Mekong River, threaten fish migration and the flow of sediment from upstream. This makes it crucial for Delta communities to proactively protect the health of their ecosystems. However, financial pressures and lack of environmental awareness drive some people to illegally log and poach fish from the marine protected areas of the park.
“To support the park, we must support the people,” said Dang Minh Lam, Deputy Head Park Ranger. “Income from sustainable livelihoods relieves pressure on the park’s resources.”
This connection was the inspiration for the ecotourism project, which expands on previous work done by the park with financial support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) from 2012-2013. WWF helps the ecotourism hosts improve their facilities, provides hospitality training, and connects the park with tourism agencies to promote the home stays.
This project is already making a positive difference in the park. During the site visit, we caught the very end of the third hospitality training session. Representatives from all the homestay families attentively watched the trainer’s presentation, learning everything from effectively sharing environmental information to how to greet guests through hands-on role-playing. “The host families are extremely committed to improving,” Dinh Hieu Nghia, the ecotourism trainer, remarked afterwards.
Why the enthusiasm for tourism? Nguyen Van Nhuan, another host and new business owner, explained while giving a tour of his home stay after the training, “We see how ecotourism can improve lives here. It creates new job opportunities, not just for my family but for nearby families as well.”
Nguyen’s homestay is close to the famous End Point tower, and many tourists also stop by his home for lunch – his wife is known as an excellent cook. Along with Nguyen’s four adult children, they often hire neighbours to help serve the larger groups, and for other odd jobs as needed. In the year his family has been ecotourism hosts, they have made more money from tourists than they made doing aquaculture in the same time, and he is happy to help spread the wealth.
Ecotourism is also changing the way the hosts view and treat the environment. “I understand our responsibility to protect the forest and biodiversity better now,” Nguyen said, a result of WWF’s trainings. He now takes much greater care with rubbish, disposing of it carefully rather than throwing it in the water, and releases the small fish he catches to avoid overfishing. “I try to be an ambassador to tourists,” as many do not understand the importance of these practices.
The ecotourism programme is poised to expand its positive impacts. Park officials are working to get the required legal certifications to promote the homestay businesses, and 10 more families have expressed interest in being hosts. The excitement for the programme is palpable. “My favorite part of my job is working with the homestay families,” said Hieu. “Experiencing the improvement in their lives and environmental awareness, and seeing it improve their livelihoods and contribute to biodiversity conservation makes me very proud.”
All photos in this story ©Le Thanh Tung / WWF-Greater Mekong