2018 is looking glum for Lao tourism

Lao PDR’s tourism industry faces the prospect that the country will close its Visit Laos Year promotion with fewer tourists than recorded in 2017.

Laos launched its Visit Year 2018 campaign in October 2017 during the ITB Asia trade show in Singapore harbouring hopes that it would kick-start a positive trend in tourist arrivals after a sluggish 2016 performance.

But tourism officials are now warning that after the recent dam disaster and heavy monsoon storms causing widespread flooding it is likely tourists arrivals this year will be off the pace by at least 6%.

At the start of the Visit Laos 2018 campaign the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism said arrivals could reach 5 million, but that is now very unlikely.

In 2017, the country’s tourism industry suffered a major setback as travel arrivals dipped to 3.86 million when compared with 4.23 million in 2016.

But the 2017 negative performance was in fact a carry-over from 2016, which closed 10% down on 2015, a banner year that registered 4.6 million visits representing a rise of 12.64. For four years, 2012 to 2015, the nation enjoyed double-digit growth.  That has now changed with two years of consecutive declines and the prospect that 2018 will not deliver on its Visit Year campaign promise.

Initially, the first six months of 2018 looked promising with officials claiming in May that there had been a small increase in arrivals.

However, Vientiane Times said ministry officials are now estimating the first six months of the year delivered “less than 2 million visitors.”

Predictions for the second half of the year are not positive either due to heavy flooding and the dam disaster that impacted on advance travel booking trends.

Ministry officials, quoted by local newspapers, insisted that the long-term future in tourism remained bright saying it was futile to blame the tourism sector for a failure to achieve development targets.

Instead, officials called for a united effort to work as a team and impress visitors with the country’s diverse travel content.

But the clarion call for teamwork comes at a time when the country’s rulers introduced a US dollar tourist tax on all visitors effective 1 October.

While the amount is not an issue for debate, the timing certainly is, especially as the country enters the last quarter of the Visit Laos Year campaign. It could have waited until after the close of the special year to introduce the tax, while there is plenty of evidence to show that some border checkpoint that should start collecting the fee this week are not yet ready.

The ministry’s official tourism website also failed to announce the introduction of the new tax, leaving it up to local media, such as the Vientiane Times and Laotian Times, to inform foreigners.

A browse of tourismlaos.org website suggests an absence of relevant information on important subjects such as a tourist tax that could have an impact on international travellers.  To its credit, the ministry’s Facebook page had more current information, but it failed to post an announcement on the new tourist tax, which was a glaring oversight.

But on special occasions, or during trade shows, the ministry does assume a lead role in communicating new plans and campaigns. One of those occasions is the up-coming annual ITB Asia in Singapore where the ministry will join forces with the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office, the Asia Development Bank (ADB) and GIZ, the German development agency, to launch a new digital travel inspiration platform called ‘Inspiring Laos’. It will be integrated with MTCO’s popular video campaign Mekong Moments.

The launch party set for the international trade show on 18 October will also give the MTCO an opportunity to provide details of the Mekong Tourism Forum that will be hosted by Dali, China in 2019.

by Don Ross

TTR Weekly