Lao Handicrafts: Tourism or Industrial?

Lao Handicrafts: Tourism or Industrial?

Bernie Rosenbloom


“Visit Laos Year 2018” stands out on a banner stretching across a Vientiane road. The Lao script announces a handicraft show at ITECC from 2-11 February. It has all the hallmarks of an event in line with the ongoing tourism campaign.

handcraft festival Vientiane Laos

An art display by the National Institute of Fine Arts greets visitors at the door, adding a bit of culture to what comes next.

Expectations of provincial booths presenting local products or displays by prominent handicraft shops vanish steps away from the mini gallery. Something else is at play. This isn’t a tourism festival; it is mostly an industry trade show, with rows of empty chairs and a stage dominating the floor.

Handicraft Festival Vuentiane Laos

Dozens of booths displays reams of Lao silk, stylish rattan handbags, and herbal cosmetics. A Luang Prabang company offers lacquer ware, natural dyes, and Khmu crafts. The Phongsaly green tea salesman boasts of his company’s new factory.

Some stalls present provincial food specialties under the One District One Product (ODOP) label, a Ministry of Industry and Commerce MoIC) initiative. Vientiane’s Tangerine Garden showcases its spa facilities.

ODOP Laos Handicrafts

However, most of the booths belong to trading companies, wholesalers, and higher-end retailers. Yet the crowd of some 200 on a Tuesday afternoon consisted of Lao women and kids skipping school. Then again, it was a Tuesday afternoon during a 10-day industry trade/consumer show at a popular weekend shopping hub.  

Handicrafts are an integral part of Lao tourism, and they appear to be in demand as an export and domestic product. The Phongsaly tea salesman boasted customers from Malaysia. Plenty of signs in Thai and Chinese signalled that organizers expected to welcome those markets.

Phongsaly Green Tea Laos Tourism

Any foreign tourist who entered would understandably be confused. Locals weave their way around the aisle before moving to the ITECC section selling DVDs, shirts, and flip-flops. Is the industrial side of “crafts” or local products piggybacking on Visit Laos Year 2018? Isn’t this a tourist thing? Are tourists being deceived?  

Some might wonder if the MoIC and the various tourism departments under the Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism coordinated on this event. Was the Chamber of Commerce involved?

However, the bigger question may be, should Visit Laos Year include all industrial sectors, and not target only tourists, most of whom are domestic. And after seeing foods and organic coffee and cosmetics and therapies and herbal cures, what constitutes a handicraft?

Whatever the answer, these things called “handicrafts” will likely still hold a spot under the tourist umbrella. Visitors want to experience the production as much as using the product. Lao handicrafts becoming a big export product could lure tourists. As for the ITECC handicraft show…it ain’t for tourists.


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