Where have all the tourists gone?

Laos Tourism StatisticsBounlap Douangphoumy faced a trial by fire at the Laos Media Briefing during the ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on 25 January, when international travel journalists grilled him over why tourist arrivals annually tumbled by 10% in 2016, and a repeat performance is expected when the 2017 tally comes in.

Mr Douangphoumy, Laos’ Deputy Director General of Tourism Marketing Department under the Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism (MoICT), had just wrapped up a presentation on Visit Laos Year 2018, when he faced the hard-hitting Q&A session with veteran members of the global travel press corp.

“Thailand accounts for almost half of foreign arrivals, and when the King died (in October 2016), Thais were encouraged to travel domestically,” he said. Numbers from Thailand plummeted 13% y-o-y in 2016, accounting for 312,000 of the 445,000 fewer arrivals than in 2015, or about 70% of the total drop.

Another pundit questioned the “King Theory”, citing that arrivals were dismal across the board. Mr Douangphoumy countered, pointing out that several major markets showed increases, including China (+7%), Korea (+5%), Japan (+12%) and Germany (+7%).

Aside from Japan, these advances paled compared to 2015 over 2014 year-end results when China soared 21% and Korea skyrocketed 69%, while Germany’s gains remained stable. Meanwhile, 2016 visitor numbers from other top European markets were dismal. France’s arrivals were flat, and UK arrivals fell 7%. US visitor numbers dropped 6% and Australia’s figures slipped 5%. 

Overall, ASEAN numbers fell 580,000 for a 14% loss, led by Laos’ second top market, Vietnam, which saw arrivals tumble 16%, dipping to less than 1 million.

Take the King’s Theory another step, and remove Thailand from the equation. Total arrivals then stand at 2,636,077 in 2015 before sinking 23% to 1,910,060 in 2016.

On top of this, the Thai Travel Agents Association (TTAA) told TTR Weekly in August 2017, that Thai outbound travel is expected to reach 8.5 million visits by the end of last year, up from 7.9 million in 2016.

TTAA’s president, Suparerk Soorangura, said, “The country’s outbound sector is very positive… wealthy Thais still travel overseas, but the middle class market is also expanding…Japan will continue to be a top destination for Thai travellers, which is expected to reach 1 million this year (2017).”   

When asked what they thought of the King Theory of declining numbers, several Lao private sector stakeholders said the drop had nothing to do with the King. Some were even shocked that this was the reason given. Most credit a lack of marketing, promotion, and communications combined with stiff competition among destinations as the underlying causes.

Regardless, the King Theory expired in October last year, when Laos embarked on Visit Laos Year 2018, as a way to help pull the country’s tourism from its doldrums. TRAVEX, ATF’s trade show, offered the opportunity to trumpet Visit Laos Year, but the Lao booth wasn’t aglow with banners and information panels touting the promotional scheme…just a brochure with a calendar of festivals and no descriptions…and a bag with a “Laos Simply Beautiful” fan, a pen, and two informative “Laos Highlights” brochures with new products.    Laos ATF 2018

Syphone Keomanivong, Deputy General of Affairs and Tourism Information Services Division, and two staff were holding up the fort. The booth was welcoming a fair amount of traffic among the 240 buyers, a very low turnout for the 35-year-old show, and Lao private sector representation at the stall was minimal.

The Crowne Plaza Vientiane, ASEV Travel had tables and chairs for B2B sessions,  while a small stand displayed pamphlets from Shompoo Cruise, Mekong Elephant Park in Pak Beng, and Sanctuary Hotels & Resorts with properties in Pak Beng, Luang Prabang, and Vang Vieng.

Mr Keomanivong said Vientiane Center Travel was handling the recruitment of businesses. We Are Lao contacted several major Lao hotels and operators, and none had been approached to participate. 

Shining more light on the situation was Andreas Hofmann, Sustainable Tourism Team Leader for the Lao German Development Cooperation Project (GIZ). GIZ backed the MoICT in preparing for ATF, including the booth.

“Part of the reason GIZ supports the MoICT’s presence at ATF is to better Lao capability when dealing with the market,” Mr Hofmann said. “Show presence is 50% learning and 50% marketing.”

Though ATF has lost much of its lustre in recent years, Mr Hofmann said, “It (TRAVEX) is worth it to show the products. ATF gets about a C-.”

However, he said TRAVEX presents an excellent venue for the government to learn how to work at trade shows. “The government gets to learn how to represent the country’s tourism, and they are doing better. I can see improvement,” Mr Hofmann noted.

Regarding the low turnout from Laos’ private sector, he said large businesses, such as hotels and DMCs, have their own booths. “We have a good turnout for what it is,” he said. “But they (Lao businesses) have to pay. We could have used more, but we’re happy with the turnout.”

GIZ’s 50/50 project appears pointed at a long-term solution for improving the Lao NTO’s ability in marketing the country. But Lao tourism stakeholders need a well-marketed country to sell their products now. Most know Visit Laos Year isn’t a magic pill that will turn floundering arrival numbers around.

Visit Laos Year 2018“I often wonder if the Visit Lao Year scheme – there was one in 2012 – is more about our friends in the public service justifying budget increases than it is about promoting the country,” said Peter Semone, Lanith Founder and Managing Director of Human Capital Development. 

“As the private sector, you should hold the Lao National Tourism Administration (LNTA) and other public service organizations accountable for their reasoning and intentions behind such ‘special’ year proclamations. After all, they are placing your tax money on the roulette table.”

Mr Semone went on to state, “If the intentions of Visit Lao Year 2018 are indeed to tell the world that Lao PDR is open for business in the field of tourism, then a transparent and professionally organized action plan should be shared with all stakeholders from industry, government, and civil society. It is the least that one could ask for.”

Mr Semone concluded, “The days of haphazard actions in tourism promotion should be a thing of the past. As is the case with many of your ASEAN neighbours, the tourism industry should demand a higher level of professionalism and results-based thinking.”

It remains unclear whether Mr Douangphoumy’s presentation at the ATF’s Laos Media Briefing qualifies as a “haphazard action.” His delivery on Visit Laos Year was more informative than the brochure, and it interested the media. He drew attention to new products including the Khammouane Loop and attractions in Xieng Khouang beyond the Plain of Jars. He also pointed to new adventure activities in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.

Mr Douangphoumy bookended the presentation with a pair of Visit Laos Year promo videos. The GIZ clip opened the presentation, with a few in the press mumbling about its mediocrity. The Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) video closed out the show, and received a better reception. The production was Grade A, a contemporary song played throughout, and the film seemed to appeal to Millennials, merging luxury with cultural and natural immersion.

During the Q&A, Mr Douangphoumy was asked if the videos were available for downloading. As of yet, they were not, but would be, he said.Laos ATF 2018 TRAVEX

Another journalist noted that Scandinavian passport holders received a visa exemption for a 15-day temporary stay during Visit Laos Year 2018, and wondered if similar flexibility would be extended to other countries.

“There will be an announcement soon on new visa regulations,” Mr Douangphoumy said.

He was then asked what specifically the government was doing to promote Visit Laos Year. Mr Douangphoumy admitted the country has a small budget. He said events were planned for France, Germany, and the UK, and Laos would participate in an exhibition in the Philippines in March. He added that “Lao Festivals” were planned for China and other Asian markets, and Laos would likely attend ITB Singapore 2018 for the 4th consecutive year.  

By then, Visit Laos Year will be drawing to a close, with many of the annual festivals having already been held. Still, there will be three high-season months left in the year. However, Lao hotels, tour operators, and DMCs will already have a good idea of whether 2018 arrivals will climb or fall, and what impact Visit Laos Year had.

While the jury remains out on the success of Visit Laos Year, a longer term, sustainable marketing strategy remains a mystery to many. However, there is a national plan that includes tangible results it seeks to achieve.

The “Lao PDR Tourism Destination Management Plan 2016-2018” includes an “Action Plan”, which calls for a reasonable marketing strategy along with a lengthy list of activities. The strategy is funded by the ADB, and prepared by Swiss Contact in conjunction with the MoICT.

The document’s Action Plan includes, “Develop a manual and/or workshops on how the stakeholders can get involved in the marketing of Laos.” Point A7 states, “Ensure that tour operators are informed of national or provincial events well in advance. Allocated date and time, 2 years ahead for tour operators.”

Whether or not these results will be achieved seems irrelevant. The deeper question is why the private sector is waiting on the government and donor agencies to act. The tourists are out there, and creating an academic document doesn’t appear to achieve results, as seen in the drop in arrivals during the first two years of the Destination Management Plan.

All statistics show that global tourism is on the rise; tourists simply are not coming to Laos. Perhaps it’s time for the private sector to discover a way to find them.