Tourism should be top of Laos’ development agenda

I recently went to Luang Prabang province to cover a news event. In addition to reporting, I got to visit places that were beyond my normal travels around Vientiane and witnessed developments there first hand.
Like many other Lao citizens, I wondered how Laos could pursue a development path that is more sustainable.
In the world heritage town of Luang Prabang, I had a discussion about this topic with a travel agent who gave me some food for thought.
He said Laos should focus more on tourism and make it a key driver of the country’s economic growth. At present, the mining and hydropower sectors are the primary forces of growth.
To begin with I did not take the travel agent’s opinion seriously. He said the government should take the lead in tourism development, so that he would benefit from state intervention.
But after thinking about this more deeply, I came to the conclusion that he was on the right track. In fact, this idea could be adopted as a national development strategy in the future.
Based on my own assessment of the current development potential, I see tourism as being a competitive industry compared to other fields because of Laos’ natural beauty and the warm hospitality of its people.
Luang Prabang is a town of green trees, rivers, ancient temples, and a traditional way of life that is becoming rarer in the world, and which tourists may not find in many other places.
Because of the rules mandated due to its world heritage status, Luang Prabang has maintained its traditional architecture and many of its old buildings appear the same as they did several hundred years ago. And the town certainly doesn’t have many tall buildings like those found in major cities around the world.
I was encouraged to see the people of Luang Prabang living in an unhurried way. And the air was clean because there were no factories to pollute it.
In terms of services, the hotel and restaurant staff I encountered were friendly and greeted visitors with a sincere smile. I think the attitude of Lao people encapsulates the true essence of hospitality.
I have travelled to many places around the world and although tourism staff treated visitors in a professional manner, their smiles did not seem to come from deep down. They were professionals who smiled routinely.
But Lao people are different. A case in point is the driver of the Luang Prabang hotel car who drove me from the airport.
After finishing his job, he saw me walking around Luang Prabang and offered me a free ride on his motorbike to a friend’s house. This kind of friendly assistance is rare in the world.
I was not alone in experiencing such consideration. One of my Western friends told me he wanted to buy some bananas which cost 5,000 kip a bunch. He gave the vendor a 100,000 kip note. But the vendor did not have any change so he asked the man, a complete stranger, to pay him later. This is also a rare occurrence in today’s world and therein lies Laos’ beauty.
I feel strongly that this kind of hospitality and Laos’ cultural traditions are valuable assets that offer the visitor a very special experience and give the country a competitive edge in the tourism market.
Of course, Laos, and in particular Luang Prabang, do not have the extensive modern facilities that are found in large cities. But I think that Luang Prabang exudes a charm that more than compensates for any deficiencies.
In my opinion, Laos should certainly focus on tourism development as a key driver of economic growth.
An alternative view is that Laos should become a manufacturing hub. This is a good idea but I think there are severe constraints due to the limited workforce.
Laos has a population of just 7 million people, so it cannot become a mass production centre like Vietnam, Thailand and China. What Laos can do is to fill in the gaps and do what no one else can.
For example, Laos can grow organic foods for the tourism industry. This could be made a real feature of a visit to Laos so that tourists enjoy their food and the fact that it is free of chemicals.
In conclusion, I think that although the idea of making Laos a unique tourism centre has not yet proved to be successful, I strongly believe this concept is practical due to the country’s abundant natural beauty and the warm hospitality of its people, all of which offers tourists an unrivalled experience.

By Ekaphone Phouthonesy
(Latest Update January 23, 2019)

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