Insights and Analysis

In Laos: Paradise Found

April 16, 2008

By Gretchen A. Kunze

The annual New York Times’ feature on hot travel destinations named Laos as number one on its list of “Places to Go in 2008.” The spotlight is now on Laos, and a recent spate of articles has been written about Lao tourism, notably Tuesday’s International Herald Tribune article by Seth Mydans and one a few weeks earlier by Denis D. Gray for Associated Press. These and other commentaries lament the cultural changes arising from the huge influx of tourists. What these changes mean for the overall development of Laos, and whether the country is ready for the rapid growth that the tourism industry is bringing, are issues receiving less attention.

Long before Laos tourism hit the international press, industrious Lao entrepreneurs with the know-how and capital spotted the trend and were opening tour companies, cafes, and hotels. Enrollment numbers at English schools are climbing. The National University of Laos offers a BA in tourism studies as of two years ago ” the first class hasn’t even graduated yet. On a trip to Laos last month, one educator told me that the English language books most in demand by her Lao students are not short stories or books on current events, but those about Lao history and sites; prospective tour guides want to learn how to talk about their country with tourists in English. In this poor landlocked country where the annual per capita income is around US$400, the tourism industry offers promise of good jobs and good wages.

Whether or not this tourism boom will be a blessing or a curse for Laos in the long-term remains to be seen. While Laos is eager for the economic growth increased tourism is bringing, the dangers of this rapidly expanding industry in this quiet country of about six million people are apparent. Tourism is thriving, while so many safeguards — environmental, legal, social, public participation in decision-making, zoning, etc. — are still in their infancy. For example, the country does not yet have the established legal framework to protect itself from unscrupulous “investors” who could try to seize on the country’s new-found status as a premier destination. For every eco-lodge or fair-trade handicraft center, there is also the opportunity for developments that are neither environmentally sound, nor, in the case of foreign investment, even beneficial to Lao people. Significantly wealthier countries the world over have faced serious problems as a result of tourism despite their sophisticated legal systems. In contrast, Laos has a total of about 70 laws currently on the books.

The tourism industry offers spectacular opportunities for Laos, from economic growth to dramatically increased engagement with the outside world and an influx of new ideas. It can also raise the profile of Laos in the international community, as more visitors mean more people familiar with and, as is almost inevitable in this charming country, fond of Laos.

There are also potential benefits beyond directly economic ones, such as cultural and environmental preservation. For instance, a number of elephant parks have sprung up in Laos to breed and protect the nation’s dramatically declining number of elephants through attracting tourists and their money, as well as by encouraging local pride and interest in elephants. Known as the Land of a Million Elephants, the estimated number of elephants in the wild in Laos is now estimated at less than 1,000. Tourism may be the greatest hope for their survival.

For better or worse, what is undeniable is that in an effort to cater to increasing numbers of tourists the industry is already responsible for changes. The New York Times claims that Luang Prabang in the north of the country is the destination for “global nomads.” I’m not sure what that means exactly, but with its high end hotels, restaurants, and spas catering to a wealthier Western, Japanese and Thai clientele, stunning Luang Prabang is certainly no longer only a backpacker’s haven. Far from it. A room at the lovely Villa Santi Resort and Spa, for example, is advertised at US$170. While arguably worth every Kip (the national currency) and still a discount compared to equally luxurious top-end destinations in other countries, this is a far cry from the US$5 rooms that were plentiful until fairly recently. As the number of posh, star-rated hotels in Luang Prabang and Vientiane increases, today’s backpackers are now going beyond the most popular destinations, and discovering what will become tomorrow’s destinations for the masses. Guesthouses continue to pop up in the most remote Lao villages, and the cycle continues.

As development progresses in Laos and other once remote places in Asia, tourists — particularly those who can claim they “remember back when…” — are often quick to lament the “loss” of simpler times in their favorite destinations and much slower to acknowledge the mixed blessing of tourism. While the locals may share some of the fond feelings of a quieter era and concerns over changes, at the same time they seldom reminisce about the good old days when there were fewer jobs, no hospitals, or running water.

Related locations: Laos
Related programs: Environment and Climate Action
Related topics: International Development


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