Laos sees marked shift in tourist appeal

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Tourists in front of the Patuxai in Vientiane.
Photo: Laure Siegel

It is Saturday afternoon in tourist high season, and Vientiane is very quiet. Most shops are closed for the weekend. A couple of Asian tour groups ascend the Patuxai, the Laotian capital’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe. On every floor, stalls are packed with five-year-old photocopies of the Lonely Planet guide to Laos, fake antiques and communist flags, while its female vendors relax in deck chairs.

Down the road at the government tourism office, things are a little more animated. Staff are preparing promotional material for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Tourism Forum 2018 in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, where Laos had a booth in late January.

“We will receive the festival agenda in a few days, come back on Monday!” shouts the woman in charge, before handing out a free map, pen and fan to foreign visitors.

With the slogan “Simply Beautiful,” Laos officially kicked off its tourism campaign, Visit Laos 2018, in November. The landlocked nation is aiming for 5 million international travelers this year. Tourism accounts for 9% of gross domestic product and is one of the government’s 11 priority development sectors. But in 2017, total arrivals declined by an annual 10%, for the second consecutive year. Back in 2015 Laos tourism reached an all-time high, with 4.68 million international arrivals.

According to data from the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, only the number of Chinese visitors continued to increase from 2016 to 2017.

Visitors from Europe and the U.S. fell by a third, and Laos also experienced a considerable decline in the number of high-end tourists from South Korea and Japan in the same period.

Visit Laos 2018 is aiming to reverse the country’s declining tourism fortunes. “Beside attending the ATF, we will have a team with our vice minister visiting the Internationale Tourismus-Boerse in Berlin and we will also be present in the Paris and London tourism fairs. In Asia, we will attend events in Japan, Korea, China and Singapore,” Lao tourism deputy director general Bounlap Douangphoumy is reported as saying recently. Official websites about tourism in the different provinces of Laos and a festival calendar have also been launched.

“Hmong (indigenous people) New Year in Ponsawan, boat racing festival in Vientiane, Loy Khratong (floating basket festival) in Luang Prabang, Lao New Year throughout the country, those are good ways for tourists to engage with the local community,” said Stefan Scheerer, general manager for Khiri Travel Laos, a destination management company focused on Southeast Asia. “There is huge potential for development here in the next three-to-five years. We currently sell 1,500 packages a year for Laos while we shift 5,000 in Myanmar.”

Read full article at NIKKEI ASIAN Review:

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