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|Local expertise: The cooperative offers new experiences for tourists. - Photo danviet.vn|
Back in 2014, when Là Văn Phong had just graduated from university, the idea of ecotourism flashed across his mind. With the assistance of like-minded friends, he established the Quỳnh Nhai District Ecotourism Group in 2015, which transformed into Quỳnh Nhai Fishery and Ecotourism Co-operative in 2016.
“Our startup capital was only VNĐ20 million (US$870). Due to the financial shortage, we struggled to organise tours and had to hire boats. Fortunately, thanks to our considerable knowledge of local history and culture, we became tour guides at the same time we were managing the organisation,” said Lù Văn Bình, the cooperative’s deputy director.
At present, the cooperative offers several services, ranging from tourism to aquaculture and fish processing.
The sightseeing tour on the Sơn La hydroelectric reservoir, its signature activity, takes tourists to float alongside majestic lofty mountains.
“The journey will offer you unique experiences of culture, life and cuisine of White Thái people,” Phong tells his guests.
The Temple of Lady Han, the goddess of peaceful aspiration, is the tour’s first destination. Sailing on the boat, tourists are lost in contemplation of the mountains in front of them. Under the reservoir bed lie the nine Quỳnh Nhai District communes which were destroyed to construct the provincial hydroelectric power plant, leaving just two above water.
On an islet, tourists enjoy traditional Northwest cuisine with grilled fishes and honey marinated chicken. On his second tour with Phong’s co-operative, Lê Khắc Tùng, 25, found everything brand new.
“They offer new experiences in every tour. It’s exciting that I can catch, grill and enjoy the freshness of fishes raised in the reservoir,” he told Tuổi trẻ (Youth) newspaper.
“We want to create jobs for people and promote local heritage,” Phong recalled of the motivation that pushed him and his other three friends, Điêu Đức Trọng, Tòng Văn Sương and Lù Văn Bình to start the co-operative.
After two years, they had offered more than 200 tours on the hydroelectric reservoir and welcomed back several tourists.
“Being children of the land, we share with guests the knowledge of local history and culture with pride,” said Phong.
Using internet-based methods of marketing, the co-perative reaches a wide range of audiences. During festive seasons, they handle up to ten groups of tourists a day.
“We encourage our friends to work for us. It was quite overwhelming but we kept trying to enhance our services,” he said.
In the meantime, 40 fish cages were set up, aiming to give tourists a novel culinary experience and provide Sơn La Province’s specialties to the domestic market. In January, 2017, the cooperative started purchasing and processing local fishes.
“Marinated with Thái ethnic species then dried, fishes become a special snack which is widely favored in the Northern provinces’ markets. Sold at VNĐ200,000 ($8.8) per kilogram, the product has generated a good profit for us,” Phong said.
The model combining tourism and aquaculture created jobs and sustainable income for eight cooperative members and seven other workers. In the future, Phong expects to expand the market for their dried fish products and construct a complex with a restaurant, motel and local specialties exhibition room to enhance tourists’ experiences in the Northwestern mountainous area.
Ngần Văn Đưa, head of Chiềng Bằng Commune People’s Committee in Quỳnh Nhai District, said that the Sơn La hydroelectric reservoir, 72km long and 10km wide, had untapped potential as a tourist destination and fishery site. Therefore, the cooperative’s initiative has helped boost the local economy.
Vàng A Lả, secretary of Sơn La Provincial Youth Union, praised Long’s start-up as an inspiration for local youngsters. He said that the agency would continue assisting the cooperative to access sources of capital and tourists.
“Local potential for tourism and fisheries under the cooperative model was awakened by young people’s initiatives, contributing to transform old economic models in the province,” he added.