Earlier this year, I spent some time volunteering in Sapa, Northern Vietnam, with an organization called Sapa O’Chau. Sapa is firmly on the tourist trail, thanks to hikers wanting to explore the many surrounding villages and markets that are home to ethnic minorities such as the Black Hmong, Flower Hmong and Red Dao. Tourism has a major impact on these communities, many of whom are shunned by local Vietnamese people, thus being labelled ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘backward’.
Apart from the obvious impact of higher seasonal sales for vendors and businesses selling local crafts, souvenirs, jewelry, textiles, factory made clothes, shoes, trekking gear and brisk business for restaurants, cafes and accommodation providers, there are other ways how tourism has affected the socio-economic environment. There are a sizeable number of jobs created by tourism fuelled businesses, employing youth from the minorities giving them a chance to learn new skills.
Families are grateful for the additional income from the success of homestay programs organized by companies such as the one I volunteered with. Many women from the local Black Hmong community are able to earn a sizeable income by working as trekking guides and selling handicrafts and other wares to tourists. Increased interaction with tourists and foreigners has resulted in them learning how to speak fairly well in English. Sometimes they would ask if I could teach them more words, showing their eagerness to learn as much as possible.
While teaching young adults from the same community, I realized that interaction with foreign volunteers and tourists has sparked their curiosity about different countries & cultures. They speak, read and write in English quite well, thanks to the efforts of volunteers who work with Sapa O’Chau. The organization also runs a café and trekking company, the profits are used to maintain the school and hostel where the students live for five days a week. The story of how this organization was set up by a local Black Hmong who was the first woman from the community to work as a trekking guide is an inspiring one. If it weren’t for the influx of tourism in Sapa, then the community would not get access to many opportunities as it does today.
There is an undeniable positive impact on social empowerment, self-confidence and aspirations. My students, girls aged 14-21 years admitted that they want to travel, study and work abroad rather than sell to tourists on the streets like their parents. Some want to start small businesses, work in managerial roles, or as teachers in the cities. These aspirations would be unthinkable if tourism had not brought with it the idea that there was life outside Sapa.
While the debate of heavy dependence on tourism crippling economies is a never ending one, we must acknowledge the positive impact on communities. With many examples of grassroots organizations doing extraordinary work, it is undeniable that tourism has the potential to reduce wide socio-economic disparities. The question that arises and begets effective action is if governments will realize the importance of making it easier for grassroots organizations to function effectively and work towards removing bureaucratic road blocks.
For more about Sapa and Vietnam in general, visit my Vietnam travel blog.