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Illegal Chinese Tour Guides in Luang Prabang are Taking Away Opportunities From Lao Nationals

Source: Radio Free Asia

Laotian tour guides in the popular tourist town of Luang Prabang say they are increasingly losing business to Chinese nationals offering unofficial tours to visitors from China.

The Lao government requires that tour services be provided by Lao nationals, and the growing number of unlicensed Chinese tour guides in Luang Prabang highlights China’s expanding influence in the country, particularly since Beijing lifted Covid-19 restrictions on outbound travel in December.

Situated in a mountainous area of northern Laos, the town of Luang Prabang lies on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and is a popular destination for tourists drawn by its architecture and cultural significance.

But Laotian tour guides in Luang Prabang say they are being squeezed out by Chinese nationals providing similar services to Chinese visitors outside of officially licensed tour companies.

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“Chinese tour guides come with their countrymen and perform this kind of job illegally,” said one Laotian tour operator who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke to RFA Lao on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal.

“When they see freshly arrived Chinese tourists, they negotiate with them right away [before they can seek out local tour companies] … They are unregistered and work here illegally,” he said.

Another Lao tour guide in Luang Prabang told RFA that tour companies bringing Chinese tourists to Laos are required by law to hire Chinese-speaking Lao nationals as guides before visiting any tourism sites.

“Failure to comply with the law will result in fines,” she said.

Pent-up tourist demand

But Lao tour guides said that many illegal guides drive Chinese tourists across the border in their own vehicles from southwestern China’s Yunnan province via the border town of Boten in Luang Namtha province to avoid detection, before making their way south to Luang Namtha.

“Illegal Chinese tour guides like to use their own cars as a form of personal tourism, rather than in a large group tour,” he said. “They know how to prevent themselves from being identified by the Lao tourism police, so we have to report them to our Lao tour guide association for investigation.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 1 million Chinese visited Laos annually, accounting for about 20% of all tourist arrivals, but last year only about 45,000 Chinese tourists came to Laos.

Since China’s lifting of outbound travel restrictions, that number is on the rise. In the first four months of 2023, more than 223,000 tourists visited Laos from China, according to the Lao Ministry​ of​ Planning and Investment.

According to the Lao Law on Tourism, which came into effect in 2005, any tour guide operating in Laos must be a Lao citizen who is at least 18 years old and has completed tourism training at an officially approved institute. All tour guides must carry an official tour guide card, have a working knowledge of Lao geography and history, speak a foreign language and be trained in medical first aid.

When reached by RFA for comment, an official with Luang Prabang’s Department of Press, Culture and Tourism said that he was unsure of how many illegal Chinese tour guides are operating in the town, but claimed that authorities regularly carry out inspections and fine those who break the law.

“There are tourism officers at well-known tourism sites who check the documents of those who claim to be tour guides,” he said. “If they find tour guides who cannot produce the proper documents, or cannot prove what tour company they represent, we will investigate and issue fines.”

World Heritage site

Luang Prabang has grown in influence since the 14th century, due to its strategic location along the Silk Road trading route to China and importance as a center of Buddhism in the region.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, recognizes Luang Prabang for “both its rich architectural and artistic heritage that reflects the fusion of Lao traditional urban architecture with that of the colonial era,” when Laos was governed by France between 1893 and 1953. 

The U.N. agency designated the town a World Heritage site in 1995, and now assists the Lao government in its protection and management.

According to the Press, Culture and Tourism Department of Luang Prabang province, nearly 440,000 tourists visited the area in the first five months of 2023 – some 400,000 of whom visited from abroad. The largest number of international tourists to Luang Prabang came from neighboring Thailand, followed by those from the United States and China.

Chinese-speaking tour guides in Luang Prabang said that before they had to compete with illegal Chinese tour operators, they could expect to earn up to US$60 a day.

“These days, we don’t have many Chinese tourists using our service,” said one guide. “I am a well-trained tour guide, but I don’t have the opportunity to service them because there are so many Chinese tour guides here.”

The Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism recently revealed that some 3 million domestic tourists and 2.6 million international tourists visited Laos from 2021-2023, spending US$631 million, and announced plans to attract 4.6 million visitors in 2024, with a revenue target of US$712 million.