I finally had the chance to do the Gibbon Experience recently and loved it. The Gibbon Experience is Laos’ original zip lining attraction, located in Bokeo Province, with amazingly high tree houses where visitors stay overnight to take in the beauty of the forest below and around.
From a sustainability point of view, there are some very good lessons to be learned from this project. One of the first things that I experienced was the great service, in the office and by our guides. The project hires villagers from the Nam Kan National Protected Area as guides, cooks, zip line construction and maintenance workers, and trail builders. Our guides were all ethnic Lamet villagers. I was told by our guide that all village staff get the same salary, no matter if they are guiding or building trails, since all of the work is equally valued and skilled. The office staff are also local and have learned how to manage the business without the daily help of foreign staff, which made for a very pleasant experience.
The project also invests in the protection of the forest and wildlife, supporting between 20-30 forest rangers who patrol the park and protect it from poaching. The presence of the project, which hires a total of 120 full-time local staff, was also instrumental in upgrading the status of the forest from a provincial to national protected area, which has had a positive effect on the keeping the forest intact and not carved up by roads or plantations. The Western black crested gibbon, a critically endangered subspecies of the black crested gibbon, can still be heard singing in these forests, which can be attributed mainly to the efforts of this project.
The tree houses were, for me, the central attraction, more so than the zip lining that takes you there. Staying so high up in the trees with panoramic forest views was fantastic. From a sustainability point of view, it was equally fantastic that this experience did not require separate bedrooms, separate toilets, hot water, electricity, or a full bar and lounge to keep the visitors happy. So often in tourism the meaning of sustainability is muddied by the provision of luxury rooms and services, which amps up the use of natural resources regardless of a company’s sustainability and environmental policies. The Gibbon Experience truly uses the natural beauty of the forest to keep one’s mind off of the need for the unnecessary luxuries normally expected for such high-end ecotourism products.