By John Morris Williams
In spite of Covid-19’s effect on the worldwide travel industry, the Lao tourism and hospitality sector continues to look towards a brighter future. However, our global tourism partners and clients are uncertain of the situation in Laos, and what the plan is for reopening when international travel gets rolling.
Today, all stakeholders are in one kind of survival mode or another. Some are trying to move forwards, while others are taking a wait-and-see position. This second group risks dying if they think the situation will return to the pre-Covid way of doing business. They need to maintain a positive mindset and outlook, though current conditions appear grim.
Lao tourism needs to consider and understand four main attributes to recreate the destination before moving forwards when the doors open. And these efforts require a unified front.
Lao tourism must reach the outside world, and we need to do this now. It is imperative to show our global tourism partners that we are still here, and eagerly waiting for travelers to return. Keeping Laos in the global eye via various media platforms is critical, and we must build a national synergy to achieve a brighter future.
Communication requires collaboration. The Lao travel trade must find a happy medium between the private and public sectors. We must ensure we present the correct message, and not distort the situation. This must be a unified message shared by all. We must combine our efforts to ensure a promising way ahead for all.
The Lao travel trade needs to take a larger-than-life approach in creating awareness for all. We need to build a country-wide network to provide up-to-date information that is easy to access for all stakeholders.
Lao tourism needs to build on what we have now, and improve historical and cultural attractions and outdoor activities to a higher standard. Laos offers many stunning locations. The trade needs to consolidate its direction.
Developing Post-Covid Tourism
Lao tourism needs to adjust, improve, and expand our global reach to better communicate how Laos is meeting tourists’ changing demand post-Covid. According to most marketing surveys, the following topics are high on the list of future travelers, and areas in which Laos needs to focus its visibility.
– Family-Based Travel
Families want to travel after Covid, as parents want to get their children in a fresh environment. This can include hotels and resorts with children’s activities and swimming pools, as well as soft adventures including river-based activities, water sports, hiking in nature, horseback riding, and zip lines, all of which Laos offers. The country’s cultural and historical attractions, UNESCO sites, and temples also encourage family trips and tour packages.
– Outdoor Experiences / Adventures
Laos offers a range of outdoor adventures throughout the country such as Namkat Yorla Pa eco-resort with its menu of nature-based activities, The Rock Viewpoint’s spider-net suspended bridge by Green Discovery, and Tiger Trail’s cycling and off-road motorbike excursions. Several operators around Laos offer rock climbing, camping, kayaking, mountain trekking, caving, and hiking through coffee plantations on the Bolaven Plateau.
The country’s historical and cultural aspects, such as Vat Phou, the Plain of Jars and the 2,000-year-old “Standing Stones” can be incorporated in outdoor experiences and potential tour circuits around Laos.
Green mountains and dense forests dominate Laos’ landscape, with sizeable National Protected Areas (NPAs) that are home to wildlife and endangered species, and local forest rangers oversee these pristine NPAs. Conservation activities include the Nam Nern Night Safari and the Elephant Conservation Center to name just two.
Laos offers several opportunities for multi-day circuits such as the route starting with a cruise to Pakbeng and continuing overland through Oudomxay Province and on to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane. Tourists can spend a few days at these destinations before moving to the next. Laos presents several similar opportunities, but it requires an industry that works together to create these combinations. Hotels and resorts must coordinate with top travel and tour companies, for them to be successful. Cooperating with neighboring countries can open more doors for circuits.
Short Haul Holidays
Laos should first target neighboring countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. Thailand offers the easiest access with plenty of bridges spanning the Mekong from north to south. Vietnam has a nice road from Hanoi through Dien Bien Phu that cuts through northeastern Laos to Luang Prabang and beyond. Moving ahead, the country should focus on regional markets such as Singapore and Malaysia, once flights return.
What Laos greatly needs is easy access for cycling and motorbike groups, who would love to tour the country. However, currently these groups face major hurdles to enter, while small villages lose economic opportunities. Meanwhile, conventional overland tours bypass these villages and stay on the road to known destinations.
Do not prepare to open soon after the second lockdown ends, as we still do not have an opening date. What we do need is a roadmap that accounts for various possible opening dates. Lao tourism needs to do its homework and make preparations now, either around a table or on a Zoom conference. Having a program that can be implemented at any time would be ideal, rather than not having any plans for what should or will happen.
Many questions arise over reopening. How many local travel and tour agents in Laos are still operational? Are hoteliers keeping in touch with them? Do those who do not reply still owe you money? Will Chinese and Korean agents, who had been operating in Laos, return?
Lao tourism should prepare for a shock regarding travel agents upon reopening, which raises more questions. How many are or will be operational? Do they have the proper licenses and permits to open and sell tours? Hoteliers should be concerned over not knowing how many are operational and whether they will continue in Laos once the doors open.
We may see a flood of new overseas travel agents applying for licenses without begin vetted, and their base would be from a previous company who left. Who will they choose?
Hoteliers need to meet once the second wave has receded. Zoom meetings should be held to address the sector’s objectives, hygiene, operations and manpower, and training issues. There are many points to discuss to ensure Laos is ready for that special day, when we get to say, “We are back and waiting for our friends and partners once again.”
I would like to thank Me. Lee Huong Choong from the UNWTO for his input.