China has become a major source for tourists for all Southeast Asian states. Laos is no exception in trying to attract this revenue earner in the region. As long as the Chinese economy is growing and not facing a recession, it may be possible this trend will continue indefinitely. The transformation of the Laotian tourism sector is also immense as it used to be an impoverished and isolated land-locked state inside ASEAN. In terms of consumption, there are perceptions of strong Chinese tourist spending held by officials in Laos, further accentuating the need to study ways to attract this source of income.
In terms of physical infrastructure, improved connectivity to Laos through high-speed rail (HSR) is one important way to harness this tourism potential and ensure Laos stays competitive in this market. But there are also non-tangible aspects of building up the tourism industry as well. For example, like other Southeast Asian tourism locations, Laos is also studying the preferences, tastes, and cultural norms of Chinese tourists. Some tourism industries in other countries in the region that are more advanced and experienced in interacting with Chinese tourists have already started studying and distinguishing the preferences and tastes of Chinese tourists from the first- and second-tier cities in China.
Regardless of cultural norms, high-quality tourist service standards are a universal requirement for an attractive tourism industry. It appears Laotian provinces located near the boundaries with China are the most proactive and enthusiastic in seeking Chinese tourist revenue. An example is Oudomxay province which already had a heavy Chinese visitor presence even before the onset of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the HSR project, and the recent euphoria over tourist revenue. Lacking capital, Laotian tourism stakeholders are also attracting Chinese firms to sink tourism-related investment in Oudomxay and other provinces sharing the border with China.
Regardless of the background of incoming tourists, a popular attraction in Laos is experiencing the culture, lifestyle, and performances of minority hill tribes and other ethnic groups found in Laos. Laos is likely to capitalize on this unique feature of the Laotian tourism experience. In a recent trip to Laos, the author also noticed that a major draw of tourism in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, is a tour of historical government buildings and heritage.
Given the proximity of China’s far southern provinces to Laos, it is quite natural for southern China to be a major source of Chinese tourists for the land-locked Southeast Asian state. Therefore, in addition to China Eastern Airlines, China Southern, Sichuan and Hainan Airlines are also offering direct flights to Laos. Direct flight routes include: Vientiane-Kunming, Vientiane-Guangzhou, Vientiane-Nanning, Vientiane-Hainan, Luang Prabang-Jinghong, Luang Prabang-Chengdu and Vientiane-Changzhou. For Yunnan province that shares a common border with Laos, visitors can simply walk over to the border towns.
There is now greater awareness of the need to protect resources like elephants and other natural assets in a bid to increase the eco-tourism potential of the country.
Officials in Laos are encouraging healthy tourism industry growth by rejecting gambling-related projects and have stopped issuing gambling licenses to operators. In other words, areas near the HSR project are slated for retail shops, hotel development, and other outlets in anticipation of the HSR completion. Ethically and morally, this gives the tourism industry in Laos a new shine. Tourism may have the potential of becoming a major industry in Laos alongside traditional ones like agriculture and hydropower (Laos has an aspiration to become the “battery of Indo-China” using hydropower).
There are some new trends in Laotian tourism that operators from both China and Laos should be aware of. For example, Laos derived its name from the presence of large numbers of elephants in the country (the other name for Laos is “The Land of a Million Elephants”). There is now greater awareness of the need to protect resources like elephants and other natural assets in a bid to increase the eco-tourism potential of the country. Animal conservationists from the West have come to Laos to set up eco-sanctuaries that have proven to be an ethical form of environmentally friendly tourism. Projects like these may prove to be as transformative as the BRI in transforming infrastructure and replacing seedy and shady tourist activities with legitimate eco-tourism activities.
Eco-tourism conforms to traditional images and stereotypes of Laos with its untouched hilly greenery, traditional lifestyles, and elephants in the wild. Other enduring images of Laos include monks, Buddhist temples, and backpacking trails. To protect all these assets, care must be taken to preserve the country’s temples, nature trails, and wildlife. Eco-tourism may be able to capitalize on such traditional images even as the Laotian economy continue to develop. This contrast with the immoral and unethical tourism images presented by brothels, nightlife, massage parlors, and gambling dens.
There is synergy perhaps between the state developmental agencies, conservationists’ initiatives, and infrastructure initiatives to transform the Laotian economic landscape, including the tourism industry. On hindsight, it may be possible to argue that shutting down casinos (in one case, even cutting off electricity to the facility) and not dispensing any more casino licenses or concessions may have been the right decision on the part of the Laotian authorities.
Ethical use of local community resources may help to prevent unfortunate incidents like tearing down heritage Buddhist temples, creating incentives for local gangs to force rural residents into prostitution, encouraging crimes due to indebtedness from gambling, spread of sexually communicable diseases, growth of slums, displaced minority groups, violence and lawlessness, etc. In the long run, it can induce local residents to support connectivity projects and its peripheral retail areas more as their environment is primed to maximize local revenues, as well as to construct family-friendly neighborhoods and environments. Ethical behavior can also extend to bilateral exchanges between governments to create public awareness about the dangers of gambling and indebtedness, including their potential to wreck families.
All these ethical care and concern can prime Laotian local businesses to maximize returns from brand new infrastructure constructed by the BRI and ensure that such infrastructure will continue to contribute to local community development and not degenerate into slums or red-light districts. For such an outcome to materialize, the stakeholders of the BRI projects should work closely with the Laotian authorities and local community private sector to ensure sustainable, environmentally-friendly, and market-friendly profitable development for the region.