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30 Jul, 2007

Laos At the Crossroads — In More Ways Than One

VIENTIANE — Located right at the crossroads of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), the rapidly growing tourism industry of landlocked Laos is at the same critical crossroads at which the Thai tourism industry found itself in the 1980s — the face-off between balancing “quantity” vs “quality” of visitor arrivals and boosting its ability to manage the growth.

Exactly 15 years after the GMS tourism development plans took off with the formation of the first subregional tourism working group at an international travel conference in Pattaya, all the key drivers of growth are in place. Laos is “now more connected to the GMS by air and road links than any time in history,” Sounh Manivong, Director General, Department of Planning and Cooperation Lao National Tourism Administration told an ecotourism conference here last week.

Visitor arrivals have crossed the one million mark to 1.2 million in 2006 and targetted at two million by 2010. Airports in Vientiane, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang and Pakse have been upgraded or are in the process of being so. Lao Airlines and other carriers are linking Laos to the GMS and beyond, with Air-Asia expected to be first low-cost carrier to launch a Vientiane – Kuala Lumpur service later this year.

The North-South road linking Yunnan to North Thailand via Luang Namtha and Bokeo provinces is nearly complete. The Savannakhet – Mukdaharn Thai-Lao Mekong Bridge is complete and Highway Routes 8, 9 & 12 will link Viet Nam & Thailand via Laos. New roads have been built to Konglor Cave in Khammouane and to Kuangsi Waterfall in Luang Prabang.

ASEAN citizens get visa-free access and a 30-day visa-on-arrival is given to citizens of most countries upon payment of US$30–40 at international border checkpoints in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, Bokeo, Luang Namtha, Champasak, Bolikhamxay, Xieng Khouang and Khammouane. Visa extensions are possible and border-pass travel facilities are available for neighbouring countries.

The range of emerging accommodation reflects the profile of visitor arrivals, from ecolodges to family-run guesthouses to five-star hotels. Mr Sounh said there are now 5,300 rooms in Vientiane, 3,200 rooms in Luang Prabang, 2,400 rooms in Champasak and 900 Rooms in Luang Namtha.

Positioning itself as the “Ecotourism Center of GMS”, Mr Sounh said the national policy goal is to alleviate poverty in the countryside by dispersing tourists to the provincial regions, where Laos’ unique cultural & natural attractions exist.

Dozens of foreign development and aid agencies are involved in tourism projects all over the place. Mr Sounh identified the Asian Development Bank in Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Khammouane and Champasak; the Dutch agency SNV in Vientiane, Houaphanh, Luang Prabang, Khammouane and Savannakhet; UNESCO in Luang Namtha, Xieng Khouang, Luang Prabang and Champasak, the German aid agency DED in Bolikhamxay, Oudomxay and Xieng Khouang; the GTZ, another Germany agency focussing specifically on sustainable development, in Muang Sing; Japan’s JICA in Savannakhet; the European Union in Luang Namtha and Luang Prabang; the WWF in Champasak, and the governments of New Zealand and Luxembourg in various other projects.

The Americans want to join in — the Kenan Institute sent a representative to this year’s ecotourism conference to seek out potential projects.

Although the environmental and ecotourism focus is a perfectly suited objective in view of the growing apprehensions over climate change, deforestation is continuing unabated, and the levels of the Mekong River are visibly declining. Interestingly, neither problem was mentioned by any of the speakers throughout the conference.

The ADB representative who is at the hub of the bank’s tourism coordinating effort, Alfredo Perdiguero, said that the ADB sees the GMS tourism exercise as being successful enough to replicate in both South Asia and Central Asia. But he identified a number of concerns.

He said the projected rapid growth in arrivals over the next decade due to improved connectivity could lead to more “border tourism” that will see it being highly concentrated near the urban areas, especially in the direct vicinity of the international border checkpoints, which would lead to a limited poverty reduction impact.

He said there was still a “lack of a logical spatial framework” guiding regional investment in tourism-related infrastructure and the human resource development capacities in both the public and private sectors were still weak.

Mr Perdiguero rued the “insufficient attention” being paid to the sustainable management of key cultural, natural and urban tourism resources, as well as the “uncoordinated approach and industry indifference to managing potential negative social impacts of tourism.”

As these problems are identical to those Thailand has faced over the years, it was no surprise for the conference to hear a stark warning from Dr. Sasithara Pichaichannarong, Deputy Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Tourism and Sports, for the Lao tourism industry not to repeat Thailand’s mistakes.

“I really mean that,” she said, noting that the realisation of these mistakes was itself one of the factors driving Thailand’s policy shift towards promoting “quality” tourism.

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