The central province of Quang Binh has confirmed plans to expand tours inside the world’s largest cave Son Doong from next year, allowing intrepid visitors to climb through to the end of the cave complex despite conservation concerns.
The tours are operated exclusively by local company Oxalis.
Quang Binh officials have given their assurances that the ladder will have a minimal impact on the cave’s environment and limestone structure.
Only nine new holes have been bored into the rock face to secure the ladder since British experts first explored the cave some years ago, said a report on Xay Dung (Construction), the construction ministry’s news website.
Most of the ladder only spans half a meter for just one person to climb at a time, they said.
A source from Oxalis said trial tours that took 188 travelers to the cave between May and August had been a success.
Tourists can save time by climbing over the wall to the exit instead of walking nearly four miles back to the entrance, which would be a tough choice if water levels in the cave suddenly rose, the representative said, as cited by Xay Dung.
Son Doong, or Mountain River, stretches more than six kilometers (3.7 miles) underground and boasts at least 150 individual grottoes and a dense subterranean jungle intertwined by rivers and fossilized corridors.
The cave was discovered in 1991 by local man Ho Khanh, who in 2009 helped British experts explore it.
It was first opened to tourists in August 2013, and tours are usually fully booked a year in advance.
Some travelers have already climbed over the wall using ropes, but the new ladder will shorten journeys from five to four days.
The ladder scaling the wall near the end of Son Doong Cave. Photo courtesy of Oxalis
The plan for the ladder drew a lot of attention when it was announced in May, given the fact that Son Doong is one of the country’s most precious natural sites.
Local media reported mounting concerns, prompting the tourism ministry to question Quang Binh over the possible impacts of the ladder and urge it to suspend the project if necessary.
But no stop order has been given, and Quang Binh is marching on with its plan, pointing to its own surveys that say the ladder would have an “insignificant” impact.
Son Doong and many beautiful caves in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park have made Quang Binh famous, helping it become the fourth most popular tourist destination in Vietnam after Hanoi, Saigon and Hoi An, according to rankings released by travel site TripAdvisor last August.
Foreign visitors to Quang Binh surged 75 percent from a year ago to 60,000 in the first nine months of the year, according to the province’s tourism department.