HCM CITY — The HCM City metropolitan area, which lies downstream of the Đồng Nai-Sài Gòn river system, is surrounded and traversed by nearly 1,000 kilometres of rivers and canals, which offer enormous potential for waterway tourism.
In recognition of this potential, the city in 2013 began a programme for waterway activities, but a lack of sufficient investment in infrastructure as well as the effects of pollution have led to disappointing results, according to experts who spoke at a seminar held on November 22 in HCM City.
From 2013 to the third quarter of this year, the number of tourists buying river tours rose 11.5 per cent to 257,700. But in the first nine months of the year, the number remained unchanged at 68,000 compared to the same period last year, Bùi Tá Hoàng Vũ, director of the city’s Tourism Department, said.
Phan Xuân Anh, a researcher in culture and tourism, who is also chair of the board for Saigon Boat Co, said that exploring the Sài Gòn River and its waterways as well as canals surrounded by lush tropical foliage are popular activities for foreign tourists.
The city’s main source of fresh water is Đồng Nai River, which has a large basin of 45,000 sq.km, while the 200-km long Sài Gòn River flows though 80 km of the city’s area.
Apart from these main rivers, the city has a dense network of canals, including Bến Cát, Tham Lương, Nhiêu Lộc-Thị Nghè, Bến Nghé, Tân Hóa- Lò Gốm and Tàu Hũ.
Since 2013, the city has allocated funds for 13 berths and wharfs for tourist boats to dock, while 21 others have been funded by private investors.
The number of river tourism operators rose to 37 firms, with more than 130 boats in 2014, compared to five firms with 37 waterway transport in 2011.
Last year, however, the number of operators fell to 19 with around 100 boats, due to the closure of Bạch Đằng Wharf, a busy docking place for tourism boats and floating restaurants on Sài Gòn River, according to Vũ.
In late 2012, the Saigontourist Holding Company was assigned by the city government to explore river tourism, Phạm Huy Bình of Saigontourist said. By mid-2013, the company had launched seven river tours to lure domestic and foreign tourists but the results were short of expectations.
Speaking at the seminar on river tourism in HCM City, Bình said the services were unattractive for a number of reasons, including poorly developed docking berths and tourist services along the banks of rivers and boat stop stations, as well as pollution and high tour fares.
To attract tourists, Saigontourist invested in a new 800-seat boat, which included a restaurant, for sightseeing tours. However, after the Bạch Đằng Wharf closed, tourist boats had to dock at Tân Cảng Port in Bình Thạnh District, far from the city centre, making it difficult to attract visitors for river tours, Bình said.
He said a city master plan on river tourism should be developed in a timely manner so that businesses can then create their own plans.
Phan Xuân Anh, board chairman of Saigon Boat Co. Ltd, said that rowboat tours along the Nhiêu Lộc-Thị Nghè Canal had to be suspended because of pollution and massive fish deaths. “The canal is still polluted as waste is discharged into the canal by local residents,” he added.
The boat tour, which was launched last year, received positive feedback from foreign tourists, but waste must be removed from the canals, Anh said.
Dương Thanh Thủy, chairwoman of the Trung Thủy Group, has invested in a new river tourism product called “Góc Sài Gòn” (Sài Gòn Corner).
The project on the Bến Nghé-Tàu Hủ canal in District 1 will be designed with different sections from Mống Bridge to Khánh Hội Bridge, including a community space in old Sài Gòn as well as corners for street food and coffee, according to Thủy.
Nguyễn Thành Phong, chairman of the city’s People’s Committee, said the development of river tourism would play a vital role in the tourism industry, a spearhead economic sector for the city, and that solutions were being proposed to revamp the waterway programme.
Phong has asked the tourism department to quickly finalise the river tourism development plan.
He has also asked departments and local authorities to conduct inspections of the banks of Sài Gòn River to find places to build docking berths for tourist boats.
Bùi Xuân Cường, director of the city’s Department of Transport, said the department had proposed setting aside an area of 1,800 metres at Nhà Rồng-Khánh Hội Port for tourist boats.
He said that Bình Lợi Bridge had been upgraded to allow tourist boats to enter the city’s centre.
“Enterprises cannot make business plans to develop river tours as the city has failed to present a master plan as well as provide concrete information on river tourism development,” Bùi Tá Hoàng Vũ, director of the city’s Tourism Department, said.
Next year, when the tourism department implement its tourism waterway plan, companies will then be able to develop their own tourism business plans, according to Vũ. — VNS
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