Phu Quoc Island: Paradise lost…. and made

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A boy stands in the shallow water off the coast of Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam in the village of Rạch Vẹm and plays with two other children. Styrofoam containers and other debris float close to the shore in the crystal clear waters and lap the white sand beach. Fishing net partitions a section of the sea to trap the locals’ daily catch, and in the homes hugging the coast, old people sleep in hammocks while others process fish and crab. A few satellite dishes poke out from the three-sided corrugated metal buildings that sit on wooden stilts, and incense wafts through the air from the sticks that sit smoldering in front of small shrines. Roosters peer out at us from under wooden cages that sit in front of houses. A red powder dirt road leads to this village. Jungle presses in us from all sides. We try to speak to some of the locals, but not one knows a word of English. Other than the satellite dishes and garbage, the only sign of modern civilization comes from the older children who arrive later in the afternoon dressed in school uniforms and curious enough about us to say hello, giggle, and run away.
 A visitor to Rach Vem might think that they had discovered an idyllic and traditional island of fishermen and undeveloped land in the Gulf of Thailand, but the truth is almost the exact opposite. In fact, five miles away from the boy playing in the water and the old people sleeping in the hammocks there is a shining new divided highway that snakes down to a freshly dug seaport in the south and from there to a newly expanded international airport offering direct flights from Incheon, Bangkok, and Shanghai. From there the highway leads to towering beach properties and north past Rach Vem into jungle-shrouded mountains. The highway skirts this particular fishing village, but only for now – hotels and casinos are slated to replace the village in the near future.

Although it is known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and remains under one party rule by its Communist Party, Vietnam is in many ways communist in name only.  Indeed, despite the country’s success in its conflict with first France and then the United States, the victory proved temporary for Vietnam’s communist aspirations. The United States responded to defeat in 1975 with decades of embargoes and systematic isolation of the country, and even with Soviet aid and some limited economic growth, Vietnam struggled to recover from two decades of war that left much of the country devastated. Poisoned land, ruined infrastructure, a population left scarred by millions of war dead and millions more permanently disabled, and international isolation because of United States’ pressure all resulted in a country that by the mid 1980s suffered from enormous challenges and a chronic lack of development.

It was in this context that Vietnam began to shift towards a market-based economy in 1986 with a set of reforms known as Doi Moi. Privately owned enterprises, joint stock companies, and limited liability companies were all legalized. Private use of the land was allowed. Market determined prices replaced central planning committees, and foreign direct investment was actively pursued. Vietnam’s economy has since grown tremendously. However, this growth has come with increased inequality, very high levels of government corruption, and environmental degradation. Enter Phu Quoc Island and the idyllic village of Rach Vem.

Marketed as “Vietnam’s Hawaii,” the “Pearl Island” or “Southeast Asia’s Monaco”, Phu Quoc is in the midst of a systematic plan to transform the island from an undeveloped backwater to a completely planned environment. When I arrived, I expected a somewhat developed island that blended in with what I had seen in the rest of Vietnam, but in retrospect, this expectation was naive. The numbers alone describing the island’s development and growth are astounding. In the 1990s, Phu Quoc reportedly only had eight accommodations along its west coast but by 2012, the number of hotels or other accommodations reached 72 and by 2020, the government expects there to be roughly 10,000 rooms available capable of accommodating around 2.5 million visitors per year. For perspective, the island received 75,000 visitors in 2001 and 1.2 million in the first half of 2016 including 140,000 tourists from Russia. Phu Quoc’s main town called Duong Dong had 18,000 inhabitants in 2003, 80,000 in 2016, and is planned to have 240,000 people by 2030. In addition to the dozens of hotels under construction, the island will also soon host two golf courses, a safari (Vietnam’s largest zoological park), the world’s longest cable car ride, a coastal and marine sea entertainment complex, and a port capable of receiving international deep water cruise ships.

Along the main street of Duong Dong in January 2016, I saw construction in all directions. Shopkeepers spoke English, Chinese and Russian and signs in both Russian Cyrillic and English were the norm. From the dirt streets being paved, to the tile sidewalks being laid, to the underground infrastructure and the cranes in all directions, the entire town appeared to be under construction simultaneously.  The difference between the already developed resort areas of Phu Quong and the dirt roads and undeveloped villages in the north of the island gave the appearance of two separate countries on one island.

I arrived in Duong Dong from the seaport along a recently constructed divided highway, but on rented motorbike the next day, I soon discovered an entirely separate divided highway under construction leaving Duong Dong and running south roughly parallel to the already existing road but separated by a 5-10 mile buffer. This additional highway was being built to accommodate construction projects along the coast. The existence of two divided highways on a peninsula of a single island in Vietnam and separated by such a small distance is worth mentioning because on the way to Phu Quoc, I drove through the Mekong River Delta region of Vietnam, an area with 17 million people, a quarter of Vietnam’s population, in bumper to bumper traffic and along undivided and occasionally unpaved roads. Indeed, the highways I saw in Phu Quoc were the nicest roads I saw during my entire visit to Vietnam. It was obvious where the government’s priorities were.

It is difficult to judge all of the dimensions and consequences of such rapid development. Traditionally inhabited by fishermen with a mixed history of both Vietnamese and Cambodian sovereignty, Phu Quoc was developed with rubber and pepper plantations by the French in the mid 20th century. The Americans and South Vietnamese later used the island to house a prison of war facility where up to 40,000 Viet Cong and other prisoners were detained and tortured in the 1960s and 70s. However, apart from this prison camp and the small number of traditional villages hugging its coast, the island had essentially no development. In 1970, an American pilot named Alan Baker described it as having a 3,300 foot airfield with no radio communication or tower while Chuck Searcy, another American pilot, recalled that in the 1970s,he had to circle the airfield three times to scare cows off the runway before landing and that the island had only three hotels, “all decidedly ‘no star.” After the Vietnam War, the government worked to ensure its possession of the island from the Cambodians but did little else. Vietnamese government officials and international tourists otherwise ignored Phu Quoc because prior to Vietnam’s capitalist reforms, private ownership across the country was almost entirely illegal and contact with foreigners was rare or nonexistent.

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Remnants of a prisoner of war camp in Phu Quoc dating from the Vietnam War.

The situation began to change in the 1990s. From a secret backpacker’s paradise following the first tentative opening of the Vietnamese economy, Phu Quoc was quickly targeted for development by both the Vietnamese government and international developers. In 1997, Tran Van Hoa, an Australian economist, observed “Substantial gains will be obtained by Vietnam’s tourism industry when the island of Phu Quoc is fully developed as an off-shore holiday resort,” and indeed by 2006, the government of Vietnam had approved a strategic plan to develop Phu Quoc by 2020. The plan envisioned making the island into a “big, modern and high quality tourist, convalescence and trade center of regional and international importance” with at least $770 million of annual revenue. And this is exactly what is being done.

The impact on the local population has been undoubtedly profound and it is difficult to know how much of the economic development overtaking the island has benefited them. For example, the corporation planning a resort and casino in Rach Vem, the village I described at the beginning of this article, plans to relocate the villagers away from the beach to a canal southwest of the coast. It is unclear whether the villagers will still have ocean access to continue fishing following this relocation or if fishing will even be allowed to continue in the area of the resort. Similarly, it is unclear how much skyrocketing land prices (one article describes land as costing $1,400 a square meter and up to $1.8 million for lots close to the beach) have benefited the local people. In addition, while land management strategies exist to protect the natural environment in the mountainous areas of the island, the high value of the land and the sheer number of people moving to Phu Quoc threaten the viability of maintaining large portions of the island in a natural state. Indeed, despite high profile cleaning campaigns often organized by investment companies or foreign organizations to market themselves as environmentally aware, Phu Quoc suffers from a lack of waste management facilities. Garbage is collected and burned in open pits throughout the island and despite the heavy investment in tourist infrastructure, a similar investment has not been made in waste management even while trash production has exploded from 50 metric tons a day to 190 tons and raw sewage is routinely poured into the island’s central river or directly off its coast. Although these problems are not insurmountable, they help illustrate the inevitable environmental and human cost of Phu Quoc’s rapid transformation to international playground.

Phu Quoc is the most dramatic example I have personally witnessed of a large-scale planned development of an entire region. My lack of Vietnamese language skills hampered my efforts to learn about the local perspective of the development; similarly, the lack of English language economic and population statistics from the Vietnamese government limit my ability to look at hard data showing the value of investments, land use changes, and population growth. However, even lacking this data, the sheer amount of construction by both the government and private enterprises makes it abundantly clear that I witnessed an island in the midst of a total transformation. Today, the fishermen’s children still play off the coast of Rach Vem and the chickens still wander around the stilted houses, but enormous changes wait for both just over the horizon. While I praise and support any economic development that brings education and increased income to marginalized populations, I also wonder how much benefit the local population actually gains from this development. More broadly, I see the island’s transformation as yet another inevitable example of how overpopulation is steadily encroaching on all of the planet’s remaining wild spaces. I am happy for Phu Quoc if the government manages to strike a balance between economic development and sustainability and the population there deserves to have opportunities to bring them out of poverty. At the same time, it is disheartening to regularly read articles about international destinations that implore readers to visit someplace while there is still time. And that is the situation on Phu Quoc Island.

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