What interests visitors coming to Laos the most? Here’s a hint; you can’t avoid them. According to the government’s Tourism Development Department, nature and culture hold the top two slots. The World Bank came to Vientiane in December 2017, with nature-based tourism on its mind, and its eye on the country’s 20 National Protected Areas (NPAs).
Benjamin Carey, an Edinborough-based tourism consultant with 30-plus years of experience, is the point man for the World Bank-financed project, with Lanith founder Peter Semone flying wing. They met with tour operators and DMCs among others, to get a feel for what is going on. They returned in January to hit the road in search of nature-based tourism opportunities in Laos.
“I went to 12 NPAs in 3 weeks,” said an exhausted Mr Carey. That’s a lot of terrain. Laos’ 20 NPAs cover nearly 14% of the country. “It was a big leap in experience for me. It was an education,” and access generally isn’t easy. “The roads are very bumpy, but this can help protect the area.”
He implied that if visitors really want to go to an NPA, they need to earn it, and many Lao tourism stakeholders agreed. However, Jeroen Bekebrede, General Manager at Kingfisher Ecolodge, pointed out that remote villages along the road leading to a southern Lao NPA suffer from poor infrastructure. Rainy season washes the unpaved road away, and the muddy trail turns to dust when the sun shines, coating people and houses with dirt.
A paved road leads to Konglor Cave in the Phoun Hin Poun protected area. Mr Carey noted, “Konglor is excellent. It is world class stuff. It doesn’t have a large market yet, but the villagers recognize the opportunities.” The tour takes visitors on a boat ride through a 7-km cave.
Mr Semone, who serves as Chairman of the PATA Foundation Board of Trustees, hit three NPAs. He entered Luang Namtha Province in the far northwest on the road from Kunming, China, with the Nam Ha NPA in his sites.
Luang Namtha played a pioneering role in sustainable nature-based and community-based tourism in Laos. Launched almost two decades ago, the UN award winning Ban Nalan Trek remains the top activity in the Nam Ha. A few years ago, a tight-knit group of eco-friendly tour operators with itineraries in the NPA formed the Luang Namtha Travel Agents Association.
Mr Semone said, “The Luang Namtha network of tour operators and their information was extremely useful.” He also complimented We Are Lao for connecting him to members of the Luang Namtha tourism community. “We Are Lao is a great example of facilitating public-private sector partnerships. They introduced me to Somsavath Namintha from Phou Iu Travel, and he organized a meeting with the members within 24 hours.”
The association has 14 members, who pay LAK50,000 ($6.00) a month for membership. “This is a good way to unite the private sector. They work together for the betterment of all Luang Namtha tourism and halt slash and burn farming in the Nam Ha.”
Mr Semone commended the association for their wealth of research. They explained that about 50% of the Nam Ha tours are pre-booked, with the remaining being walk-ins. The association also broke down the revenue for the 10 participating Nam Ha villages, which benefit from the 8,000 tourists, who enter every year. The results show the locals receive a major slice of the pie.
Mr Semone discovered the 8,000 visitors a stay an average of two days. Most are French and German and spend an average of $40-50 per day, for an annual total approaching $400,000. “It wouldn’t be difficult to turn that into $1 million,” he said.
The NPA charges a modest entry fee of $1.20. Mandatory local guides receive $7.20 per day, in cash, upon completing a tour. Each village visited gets the same amount on the spot. Meals prepared by locals with natural ingredients cost $2.40, as does a mattress in a homestay or village lodge. Miscellaneous purchases and services during a tour amount to about $3.60 per person, per day.
According to the Lao Tourism Development Department, Luang Namtha welcomed 530,000 foreign visitors, but many are Asians passing through on the five-hour overland drive between China and Thailand.
Mr Semone moved on to the Nam Kat NPA in Oudomxay, a 4.5-hour bus drive from Luang Namtha, which, “has enormous potential.” The NPA appeared on the tourism radar screen in 2009, when spelunkers began to explore Chom Ong Cave, Laos 2nd longest underground network at 18.4 km. It’s now open to tourists, and is beginning to attract visitors, most of who are Lao or German, according to Mr Semone.
The Chom Ong Cave is just a 30-minute drive from NPA’s tourism crown jewel, the Nam Kat Yorla Pa eco-resort, which offers a long slate of nature-based activities for all levels of adventurers. Activities include zip-lining, hiking over cable bridges, leisurely sightseeing trolley rides, and mountain biking.
The resort’s 61 rooms sit on 6,100 hectares at the edge of the NPA on the bank of the Nam Kat River. The accommodation is luxurious yet traditional, with 30 “Ecorooms” running about $60 per night. Mr Semone said 90% of the guests are Lao, while the rest are mostly Chinese. “This shows us that there are upscale domestic travellers.”
The resort also offers tent camping with a pair of old-style Quonset hut-like tents near the cave. “I see great opportunity in tent camping for Laos, especially along the Mekong,” Mr Semone said, adding the cost of the tents are around $8,000.
Mr Carey remained tight-lipped concerning the details of the project. He said he needed to consult with the government before talking to the public about specifics. However, Mr Carey plans to return to Laos in March to present an action plan for all to see.