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Is Tourism in Vietnam Reaching a Tipping Point?

Tourism is surging in Hanoi and Vietnam as a whole, but is it too much of a good thing?

According to Vietnam News Agency, the capital welcomed over 5.3 million foreign visitors through the end of October, up 10.8% from the same period last year. Roughly 18.5 million domestic travelers have visited the city as well, up 9.3% over the same months in 2018.

Hanoi consistently fares well in global tourist destination rankings, while city officials hope projects such as next year's Formula 1 Grand Prix and a new horse racetrack in Soc Son draw even more visitors in the future. However, such strong growth in the tourism industry is creating problems.

Last month, officials abruptly closed 'Train Street,' a stretch of railway where numerous cafes had set up right next to the tracks to cater to growing crowds of visitors seeking the perfect Instagram shot.

Authorities cited safety concerns for the closure after ever-larger crowds gathered in close proximity to an active railway. "Though the railway cafes attract tourists, they are, in fact, violating regulations," Ha Van Sieu, a Hanoi tourism official, told Reuters at the time.

Overall, 15.5 million foreign visitors traveled to Vietnam last year, a record, while 80 million domestic travelers took to the air, rails or roads as well. Such tension is far from unique in Hanoi, according to Nikkei Asian Review.

"It's difficult to imagine a better example of the costs of unregulated development than Sapa. Thoughtlessly ugly towers, broken pavements, aggressive taxi drivers and near-endless shops selling identical souvenirs have combined to create an intolerable tourist pit, bereft of appeal," Stuart McDonald, publisher of Southeast Asia-focused Travelfish.org, told the news source. 

Such huge numbers are having a major impact on the country's natural scenery, particularly in Phu Quoc, Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay, where rampant construction has defaced natural beauty and led to major pollution problems. Physical infrastructure is being stressed as well, particularly in Saigon, where Tan Son Nhat International Airport is struggling to keep up with fast-rising passenger numbers.

Nonetheless, officials throughout the country see tourism as a major economic pillar moving forward. According to Nikkei, officials at Quang Ninh Province's tourism department expect to welcome 16 million visitors to Ha Long Bay by 2021, more than doubling 2018's 7 million guests.

Vietnam News, meanwhile, reports that Hanoi's leadership aims to lure 30 million tourists, both domestic and foreign, by 2020 while maintaining 8-10% growth in the sector.