In Pictures: Vietnam's highland tourism soars

Members of the Hmong minority find new opportunities as Sapa region set to welcome 1.5 million tourists in 2014.

| | Business & Economy, Asia Pacific, Vietnam, China

Sapa, Vietnam - Called the "Summer Capital of Northern Vietnam" by its French colonisers, Sapa is home to a large population of ethnic minorities, with the Hmong making up the biggest group.

The Hmong came from China to upland Vietnam as early as the 18th century. Most make a living farming rice and maize. The tourism industry is, however, changing their traditional way of life. Since 1993, the Vietnamese government has prioritised the growth of tourism in Sapa. Over the past 10 years, tourism has increased tenfold, and Sapa is expected to welcome 1.5 million tourists in 2014, most of whom are Vietnamese seeking relaxation and an escape from the hot lowlands. Tourists are estimated to have spent 2.55 trillion Vietnamese dong ($120m) in the area in 2013.

With food shortages still common between April and October and the decreasing availability of arable land, many Hmong women leave their homes for days to sell traditional clothing and textiles in the streets of Sapa and to work as trekking guides for tourists. Pre-packaged tours in Hanoi can sell for over $100 per person, although the guides make less than $10 a day.

"If we decide to be farmers, we only have food for a few months, so we need to sell clothes to tourists. In a very good month, we can get $100, but as the tourism grows in Sapa, prices for us also are higher. We need to spend 50 percent of our income to buy new textiles to keep sewing," said Khu, a young Hmong woman.

The growth of tourism in Sapa has had some positive effects. The creation of jobs has brought higher incomes for some communities and increased knowledge about different cultures and languages. However, tourism has also led to an increase in competition among street sellers and made people more vulnerable to the strong influence of money.

The Hmong way of life may be threatened even further, as work has already begun on a cable car connecting the Chinese border to the top of Mount Fansipan in addition to other tourist developments.

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