Despite having received over three million international travellers in 2012, Laos seems to suffer of an image deficit according to travel professionals working with the destination. Is it a time to rethink Laos strategy.
“Simply Beautiful- I love that slogan because this sounds so true. But unfortunately, it now lacks a strong campaign behind to promote Laos differently from other countries”. A rather strong opinion which comes from one of Laos’ most successful local businessmen in tourism, Inthi Deuansavan, Head of Green Discovery Tour Operator and Inthira Hotels.
Laos remains probably Southeast Asia’s best kept secret destination. “This is a wonderful place for someone who wants to experience Asia from its most natural side. Trees, waterfalls, hills and mountains, relatively small cities have left Laos well preserved”, says enthusiastically Alexandre Tsuk, Managing Director of Inthira Hotelsand also vice-president of the newly-to-be-launched PATA Laos Chapter.
Over the last ten years, tourism to Laos has grown tremendously. From 2008 to 2012, total foreign arrivals went up from 1.74 to 3.33 million, a jump of 91%. But numbers can be deceiving: neighbouring Thailand represents alone over 58% of all arrivals in 2012, while Vietnam added another 21.2% market share. Together, Thailand and Vietnam generated last year 2.64 million of all arrivals to the landlocked country. And their type of tourism is probably not the most interesting for a country. While Thais mostly visit Laos for shopping and casinos, Vietnamese go mostly to their neighbour for casinos, shopping or in transit to Thailand…
It leaves only 687,000 arrivals from the rest of the world. In 2008, total arrivals from all countries except Thailand and Vietnam topped already 494,000. This represents a growth of 28 % between 2008 and 2012, or just a modest 5.6% per year. This explains why professionals in tourism find necessary today to redefine the way to promote Laos.
“I believe that we do not capitalize enough on the fact that we are the green lung of the Mekong area, the equivalent of a Costa Rica for the entire region. This is what I would love to see being communicated. Especially as Laos lacks the iconic destinations that most other countries in Southeast Asia can rely on, from Angkor Wat in Cambodia to Phuket in Thailand or Bali in Indonesia”, adds Alexandre Tsuk.
Even official foreign institutions working directly or indirectly in tourism feels that Laos is missing an opportunity to gain more fame worldwide. “It looks as if the government looks at tourism as a negligible activity. The Ministry of Tourism has been degraded to a simple department following its merging with the Ministry of Communication and Culture. And budgets have not increased for promotion”, explains a foreign based institution. “Their limited resources do not allow them to show a strong presence around the world”, adds the organization. “Even when Laos is present at big shows such as ITB, its boost is too small and gets by most people unnoticed”, adds Mr. Deuansavan.
“Simply beautiful” is indeed a nice slogan which truly describes the country’s essence. But the Laotian government has now to show more professionalism by launching a real marketing strategy with themes to attract a larger number of travellers, especially in the field of niche or specialist tourism.
Rock climbing, cyclo-tourism, architecture and heritage trails, river tourism, the promotion of Laotian cuisine, craftmen and designers of the textile industry: all these elements already exist. But they are mostly the initiatives of either the private sector or NGOs. They just now need the federating element to promote itself on a global scale using all the instruments existing today such as social media, websites, mobile applications. A unified of Laos image and products will in return attract a broader number of travellers.
Meanwhile, visitors to Laos can still easily venture outside the traditional circuit made by Vientiane-Vang Vien- Luang Prabang to enjoy an Asian authentic experience… This is probably one of Laos’ best assets so far…