The Vinpearl leisure complex in Phu Quoc boasts a 12,000-room hotel complex, an amusement park, 18-hole golf course, casino, safari park and miniature Venice

Phu Quoc (Vietnam) (AFP) - Tour guide Lai Chi Phuc has been counting down the days until travellers return to the white-sand beaches and thick tropical jungle of Vietnam’s Phu Quoc, a once-poor fishing island pushing to be Asia’s next holiday hotspot as pandemic restrictions ease.

On Saturday, around 200 South Koreans touched down on the island, which lies a few kilometres off Cambodia in the azure waters of the Gulf of Thailand, after a vaccine passport scheme kicked off this month in Vietnam.

Among the arrivals was Tae Hyeong Lee, who was returning to the island for a third time and keen to make a beeline for the beach.

“It’s wonderful to be here. This is my first time travelling out of South Korea since the pandemic started,” he told AFP.

But others may skip the lazy beach break in favour of action and entertainment as they shuffle between a 12,000-room hotel complex, an amusement park, 18-hole golf course, casino, safari park and miniature Venice.

The $2.8-billion leisure resort, part of the “sleepless city” model, opened six months ago as Covid-19 ravaged tourism across the world – and as other Asian countries reliant on the industry, like Thailand, were rethinking their mass tourism frameworks.

Travellers return to the white-sand beaches and thick tropical jungle of Vietnam's Phu Quoc

For 33-year-old Phuc, who remembers a poverty-stricken childhood where “everyone wanted to escape Phu Quoc”, the island’s growing popularity gave him a way to return home after years of scratching out a living as a salesman in the nearby cities of the Mekong Delta.

“But it’s a pity also,” he told AFP, lamenting the loss of the island’s palm-fringed beaches to resorts.

- Flood of plastic -

Ahead of Saturday’s reopening, staff at Vinpearl resort – where the arrivals are staying – swept beaches, arranged cutlery on tables and laid out sunbeds. Others busied themselves painting delicate flowers on conical hats.

Fishing boats line the horizon at sunrise off the coast of Vietnam's southern Phu Quoc island

“When we heard visitors were coming back, I was just so excited,” said duty manager Ngo Thi Bich Thuong.

Before the pandemic in 2019, around five million people, including half a million foreigners – mostly from China, South Korea, Japan and Russia – holidayed on Phu Quoc.

Vingroup – the enormously powerful conglomerate behind the new complex – is pushing to make the island: “a new international destination on the world tourist map”.

To cater for the tourist boom, 40,000 hotel rooms have been built, planned or are under construction, vice chairman of the Vietnam Tourism Advisory Board Ken Atkinson told AFP – “that’s more hotel keys than they have in Sydney, Australia”.

Globally popular vacation spots such as Thailand’s Phuket have given Vietnam something to aim for.

Staff members wearing traditional costume walk in the Vinpearl leisure complex on Phu Quoc island

Atkinson took a group of senior Vietnamese government officials there in 2005 – but while Phuket’s vibrant international tourist scene took years to build up: “Vietnam has a tendency of wanting to do everything all at once”, he noted.

“Unfortunately I don’t think there was enough attention given to what would be in the long-term benefit of the island,” he added.

Phu Quoc is a UNESCO biosphere reserve – surrounding waters are stuffed with coral reefs and its beaches were once nesting spots for Hawksbill and Green turtles.

Before the pandemic in 2019, around five million people, including half a million foreigners, holidayed on Phu Quoc

But no nesting has taken place in recent years, the UN body said in their last assessment in 2018.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has warned of “an almost unimaginable flood of plastic” that chokes rivers, canals and sea life.

Around 160 tons of trash – almost enough to fill 16 trucks – is generated every day, according to WWF, which says the island’s waste management is not fit to cope with the tourism explosion.

“More and more tourists are very conscious of the environment. They don’t want to be going to places where beaches are littered or where effluent is going into the sea,” Atkinson warned.

- Pockets of paradise -

But alongside the trash, and the garish headline attractions – including the world’s longest non-stop three-rope cable car and Vietnam’s first teddy bear museum – there are still pockets of paradise.

Alongside the trash, and the garish headline attractions there are still pockets of paradise

Chu Dinh Duc, 26, from mainland Vietnam, first saw Phu Quoc from the back of a motorbike in 2017.

Speeding through dense forests and winding his way to the few remaining sleepy villages where fishermen cast their nets into the ocean as the sun came up, he fell in love.

Two years later, he opened a simple homestay business catering to foreigners.

“My goal here is not to take a lot of their money,” he said. “But I want as many as possible to come.”

“If Phu Quoc remained undeveloped, it would just be a pearl undiscovered.”