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2 Jun, 2011

Southern Laos Border Town Comes of Age by Hosting Mekong Tourism Forum

PAKSE, LAOS – The southernmost Laotian province of Champassak raised its profile on the tourism map of the Greater Mekong Subregion by holding a successful 12th Mekong Tourism Forum between May 27-28.

The first international tourism event to be held here, the MTF will boost traffic along the East-West and North-South corridors of the Asian Highway as well as to the Northeast Thailand, especially the neighbouring cross-border province of Ubon Ratchathani.

It will also help boost Champassak’s share of the landlocked country’s rapidly growing visitor numbers which have tended mainly to flock to the capital Vientiane or the northern heritage town of Luang Prabang.

About 300 delegates from around the world attended the MTF, including  tour operators, media and several consultants and representatives of international aid agencies.

Since being held for the first time in Bangkok in 1996, the MTF has made the rounds of the primary hub cities of Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Yunnan province of Southern China. It is now being held in the region’s secondary cities, with Siem Reap playing host in 2010 and Chiang Rai in 2012.

The MTF is a successful product of many years of efforts in the 1990s by the Asian Development Bank, the Pacific Asia Travel Association, the UN World Tourism Organisation and the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Although the UNWTO is no longer involved and UNESCAP shut down its tourism unit in 2007, their years of painstaking efforts to build upon the opening of the first Thai-Lao Friendship bridge in 1994 and create tourism infrastructure, ease facilitation and establish transport linkages are bearing fruit today.

Visitors to Laos have surged from 700,000 in 2000 to 2.5 million in 2010, generating US$381 million. Arrivals in the first three months of 2011 were up 20% over the same period last year.

A major conduit has been the construction of the 1,380-metre Lao-Japan bridge across the Mekong river. Champassak is located at the crossroads between north-south Route 13 highway and east-west highways connecting Pakse with Ubon as well as the southern provinces of Salavan, Xekong and Attapeu.

The province is also home to Wat Phou, an ancient temple complex that was declared the second UNESCO World Heritage site in Laos. A huge tourist attraction is the annual three-day festival held there on the full-moon day of the third month of the lunar calendar.

According to the provincial governor Mr Sonexay Siphandone, “Champassak is being positioned as the centre of trade and tourism and a gateway to the southern provinces of Laos. Over the past five years, more than 1,080,000 tourists have visited the province, with 301,669 visitors in 2010 alone.

Today, Pakse boasts two 4-star hotels, three 3-star hotels, and numerous guesthouses catering largely to the backpackers. One more four-star hotel is under construction.

He said, “The pristine and fertile agricultural land of our province provides a significant economic asset as well as important tourism products such as the famous Pausing coffee, providing millions of dollars revenue in export earnings each year.

“Investment policy in the tourism sector has been improved, particularly in the hotel, restaurant and tour operation business, development of tourism sites and development of Four Thousand islands (in the Mekong river) as a tourism destination.”

Somphong Mongkhonvilay, minister and chairman, Lao National Tourism Administration, said, “The policy of the government has emphasised the participation of local people and other stakeholders in tourism marketing and promotion, the upgrading of existing attractions and the development of new tourist destinations. Festivals are being revitalised, promotional activities staged more regularly and there is now more and more Lao participation in regional and international trade fairs.

“In addition, a tourism law and many other tourism-related regulations have been enacted — 100% foreign ownership is now permitted in hotels and restaurants and 30-70% foreign ownership is permitted in tour companies.

“We have recently completed major road works on the East-West and North-South economic corridors. Mekong Bridges have been constructed in many places, international airports improved, more direct international air-routes opened and more than 20 international immigration points are now open, 15 of which offer 30-day tourist visa-on-arrival services.”

Mr Somphong said that citizens of eight countries have been granted visa exemptions as well as Japan, Russia, South Korea and Mongolia, Switzerland and Luxembourg. There has also been liberalisation of regulation on the use of border passes for citizens of neighbouring countries.

Although visitor numbers have boomed, not everything has turned out as planned.

Pakse abounds with many of the negative sides of tourism – poorly planned development, lack of controls and environmental degradation. As always, the MTF spent much time discussing this but couldn’t come up with any solutions beyond those which are traditionally discussed year after year.

Although the same is happening in other parts of Laos, too, the travel industry’s focus still remains primarily on stepping up marketing to bring in even more visitors. Heavy-duty discussions are under way to set up a public-private marketing board with a traveller tax being mulled to pay for it.