The People's Committee of Quang Ninh Province has ordered that tour boats operating on Ha Long Bay be painted white in order to renew their image following the bay's designation as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Most boat operators, however, are opposed to the decision.

Under the provincial order, 500 tour boats operating on the bay must be repainted white and fit with a brown sail (if the boat uses a sail) before April 30. Dragon boats can be painted with a dragon head in traditional colours. Boats which fail to comply will lose their permission to operate on Ha Long Bay.

"The decision helps the State better control the services being offered, particularly to tourists who stay overnight on the bay," said a representative of the province's transport authority. "We aim to build an international trademark for tourism in Quang Ninh Province. This also helps give a new image to the boats and the bay."

Opposing the decision, the Ha Long Yatch Association has submitted a petition to the People's Committee.

The association director, Doan Van Dung, said that white boats will cause the bay to lose its characteristic beauty and the oriental image created by the current brown colour of the boats.

"The white colour is only fit for a large iron ship or yatch," said Bai Tho Transport Company director Pham Van Hoa. "When we paint a wooden boat white, the white colour will soon change."

Boat operators argue that white and other colours once existed on the bay but were replaced naturally because they were not suited to the characteristics of wooden boats. The image of brown boats was finally chosen and became the trademark of Ha Long Bay tourism.

"Foreign tourists have been always impressed with the brown and black colours of the boats on the bay, which are imbued with Vietnamese cultural identity," said the deputy director of the Vietsky Travel Company, Dao Hong Thuong. "That's why we shouldn't copy foreign cruise ships and require the boats to be white."

But it is the huge cost of repainting the boats that is most causing boat owners to balk at the new policy.

"It will cost 30-40 billion VND (1.5-2 million USD) to paint all the boats," said Dung. "Before it announced this decision, the province should have sought the opinions of tourists and travel companies."

According to association statistics, among the 500 boats operating on the bay are 350 small boats offering cruises by the hour and 150 larger boats on which tourists can stay overnight.

"It takes about 20 days to repaint a big boat and 10 days for a little boat. It will be very difficult to finish all of the repainting in time because this is the busiest time for foreign tourism," said Binh Minh Tourism and Trade Company director Nguyen Dang Bay. "Many boats are 60-70 percent booked for the period from January to April. It will have a negative impact on the prestige of the tourism services in Ha Long Bay."

January to April is also the season of damp, drizzly weather, making it further difficult to paint boats during this time, Bay said.

"If, after all, we must change the colour of the boats, we ask the province to assist us in financing the work and fixing a longer deadline," he added./.