Tough Choices Ahead for Laos Tourism
It’s a foundation myth for those of us in the West. When the god Helios promised his son Phaeton that he would grant him any wish, the boy requested the chance to ride the chariot of the sun. This, of course, resulted in Phaeton losing control of the horses and setting the world on fire.
The country of Laos, a virtual hermit nation until 1986 when it opened its doors to tourism is now finding it very difficult to control the reigns of the tourism chariot its mounted. According to the country’s Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism some 3,779,490 foreign tourists arrived in Laos last year, a year that the government had set a target of 3.4 million for. So high were 2013’s arrivals that they even exceeded the forecast for 2015 (3,750,000 visitors). Since 84 percent of those visitors were short haul travelers from neighboring countries, staying one to three nights, the yield ($513.5 million) hasn’t matched the quantity.
In 2012, one million Thais spent one night in Laos and spent a reported average of $20 each per day. If $20 seems unbelievable, consider that the overwhelming number of Thai visitors are gamblers crossing the border to patronize a casino overlooking the Mekong River. According to local reports these visitors show little or no interest in Savannakhet’s 116 cultural, historical and natural tourism sites including the That Inhang and That Phon stupas and Sui and Bungwa lakes. Thus the local community benefits little from the revenue generated by gambling.
The ministry’s marketing director general; Saly Phimphinith said short haul regional tourists spent $238.3 million in 2013, while just 470,000 international visitors in the same period spent $275.1 million. That works out to $585 per long-haul visitor and $64 per short haul visitor. Furthermore those long haul visitors are spreading the wealth beyond the confines of the casino by exploring the country.
Break Neck Speed
The speed at which Laos is leaping for tourism’s golden ring accelerates the likelihood of an unmanaged tourism that concentrates the wealth it generates into the hands of a few and threatens the fragile cultural and environmental beauty of the country. Some in Laos are aware that some sort of guidance is needed. The 11th Lanith Symposium was held last February to address the theme, “Paving a Path to Responsible Tourism in Laos” and to bring stakeholders together to agree on national sustainable tourism standards.
Some guidance came into the equation last week when the Oriental Hospitality Consultants (OHC) opened shop in Laos to assist hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and other tourism businesses to coordinate resources and improve the quality of both facilities and service personnel to attract higher spending visitors.
In Luang Prabang, OHC general manager John Morris Williams said that the firm’s main objectives include recruitment, evaluating hospitality establishments and providing news and information to the Laotian tourism industry. In other words, they’re providing a quick course in showing Phaeton how to handle the reigns. “Our on-line service caters to all areas of the hospitality industry, from hotels, resorts, and restaurants to pubs, clubs, and smaller establishments such as guesthouses,” said Williams.
OHC uses professional auditors to evaluate hotels as “phantom guests” and offers information created specifically for an individual property or related hospitality businesses. “We wanted to create awareness for Lanith’s (Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality) team on the upkeep of a hotel with 74 rooms,” Williams said. “We gave them a full tour to see all room categories, and provided them with a better understanding of operations in housekeeping, laundry, kitchens at various dining outlets, landscaping and the spa.”
OHC’s hospitality recruitment section is set up for those seeking employment, who can post their resumes, and for businesses to advertise their requirements. Lanith Chief Technical Advisor Peter Semone said, “OHC is starting to offer a great service at the right time for Laos’ tourism and hospitality sector. Lanith has more than 50 students enrolled in the two-year diploma certificate program, and OHC provides the perfect platform for them to find employment upon graduation.”
The “right time” for Laos was probably a few years ago. The countries bordering Laos including China, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are opening up more and more land gates, which will accelerate a tourism that uses resources and yields little. Even now, China is building a high speed rail connection from Kunming to Vientiane, which is scheduled to open within five years.
An article in the regional paper The Nation reports that tourist arrival to Laos will reach 10 million by 2020. Only five years ago, Lanith was forecasting 3 million visitors for that year. By 2019, says The Nation some 40 hotels, including properties by Ramada, InterContinental, Crown Plaza, Sofitel and Marriott will open. Mercure, Ibis and Best Western are already operating in Vientiane along with about 300 other hotels and other forms of lodging are running.
From this distance, it’s presumptuous, even arrogant to judge how a country with a GDP of just $19 billion chooses to earn more money. Surely, the people of Laos have a right to earn what citizens in mature economies earn. But if the country wants to lure more lucrative long-haul tourists it may have to contain projects like the Asean Paradize Savan City in the Savannakhet special economic zone, just cross the Mekong River from Thailand’s Mukdahan province. The $10-billion project features accommodations and entertainment facilities including the aforementioned casino. The full first phase is scheduled to open in 2019, but the casino’s already rolling.
Beneficial Tourism Model
At the last World Travel Market, Laos’ Nam Nern Night Safari in Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area won the Best Responsible Wildlife Experiences Award. Nam Et-Phou Louey is located in Northeastern Laos and is one of the country’s 20 National Protected Areas. The densely forested area is a sanctuary for such endangered species as tiger, sambar deer and white-cheeked gibbon.
The Nam Nern Night Safari is run by Wildlife Conservation Society. It includes bird watching, wildlife tracking at the Boung Man salt lick, nighttime wildlife spotting, medicinal plant discovery and hiking. Local villages provide guides for the safaris who also lead visitors on tours of their village where they will learn how to cook traditional food. Every visitor must pay a fee, which is included in the total tour price, to the village development fund before entering the area.
The amount of money received by the villages depends on the numbers of wildlife seen by the tourists. The more animals being seen by visitors, the more financial support it generates to local communities. The money is shared equally between the 14 villages that surround the Nam Nern area and is used to support small-scale village development activities chosen by each village, rather than cash payments. The village development fund generated $2,860 this year, roughly $200 per village.
It’s a great system to reward the villagers to preserve their wildlife, but when compared to the return on investment of a casino, it’s something of a bake sale. So is it going to be money fast and furious for a country desperate to catch up with the prosperity being enjoyed by its neighbors or the much tougher road to sustainable future? It’s a tough call for them and altogether too easy for us to pass judgment from over here.