Build' Experiences

Sa Pa, when low-cost tourism overlooks social impact

The second part of Build’Experiences takes you to the far North of the Viet Nam: Sa Pa.

Viet Nam, populated by 93 million people, is now booming economically. The agriculture sector employs almost half of the active population and tourism represents a part more and more important of the national economy. Although the speed of development is fast, Vietnam retains an authenticity affirmed by the many ethnic groups that make up his people: more than 50 groups, each with its respective traditions.

Sa Pa region is located in the North of Vietnam, about 30 kilometers from the Chinese border. It is an isolated mountainous region, home to the highest point of Indochina: The Fansipan Mount, 3143 meters above sea level.

H’Mong, Dao, Dzay, Xa Pho and Tay (not Thai) montagnard minorities lives this area. Sa Pa economy collapsed in 1986 when the opium culture and forest logging ban was declared by the communist party in Hanoï. It is only in 1994 that Sa Pa area was opened to national and international tourist traffic to boost the economy.

Today, this fertile valley is one of the major tourist sites in the North of Viet Nam. Its rice terraces have made it a popular destination for foreign tourists, but also Vietnamese in search of nature and authenticity. This activity represents now an important part of the local economy. After long research we spotted an agency of eco-tourism, created in 2016 to help minorities mountain, with which we were able to understand the local issues: Real Sapa. (

The development of this region is visible with a strong urbanization of the area: road construction, new tourist centers and administrative buildings… Government subsidies have gradually enabled the city to build schools, hospitals and water/electricity distribution systems. For evidence, a hydroelectric dam is currently under construction in the valley. Unfortunately, some investments are not sized correctly, or meet a need that does not exist. We especially noticed a new school at the top of a mountain pass, apparently very little used.

Economic development and rising living standards: Yes, but not for all… Since independence of the country in 1954, a popular committee is the only one political and economic decision-maker for the district. This committee, supported by provincial and national authorities, is controlled by the Kinh (or Viet) ethnicity, which is only one-tenth of the local population. This ethnicity is the majority population to 85% in Vietnam and comes mainly from cities like Hanoi capital. The committee, boosted by the recent tourist boom, promotes economic development based on mass tourism. The role reserved for locals, many of whom are illiterate and do not speak Vietnamese, remains largely confined to that of a simple tourist attraction and have very little weight in decisions. These minorities do not even consider themselves as Vietnamese, and this is probably in part to this that they are not very well considered by the Vietnamese Government.

Thus, tourism seems to benefit only very little the native populations of the region. For evidence of this imbalance wealth distribution, ethnicity Viet buy more land and houses to local communities to establish homestays and to take advantage of the land value increase.

In many developing countries, tourism is still encouraged by the fight against poverty. This new source of income can contribute to alleviate poverty by creating new jobs and activities. Yet to Sa Pa, the non-poor and tour operators are seen as the main beneficiaries of tourism. To take advantage also of the income due to tourism, women of local populations often follow tourists along paths and sell handicrafts. Unfortunately, this situation often leads to discomfort among tourists and triggered conflicts between communities. Social marketing and the implementation of awareness-raising campaigns could be a lever for progress in order to promote a behavior change of these sellers.

For the case of Sa Pa, the growth of tourism may be needed to fight poverty, but does not seem to be sufficient. An integration process of the local people in this tourism development should be conducted in order to ensure a homogeneous economic growth and a reduction of wealth disparities in this region. Today, the main obstacles to a such participation seem to be the lack of tourism knowledge, funds and knowledge of foreign languages.

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