Is Visit Laos-China Year Really a Success?

Tourism officials claim Visit Laos-China Year 2019 is a success, according the Vientiane Times, who proceeded to interview an “official in charge who asked not to be named.”

Yes, total arrivals stepped up 5% to 2.2 million in the first half of the year, after a dismal drop of 0.5% in Q1. The 2019 target is 4.5 million. Yes, Chinese arrivals jumped 13% through June on the quest to reach the magic 1 million forecasted for 2019. The Tourism Development Department, Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism (MoICT) showed a similar climb of 16% in Q1, but they never give actual numbers. Last year’s Chinese tally just topped 800,000. Laos needs an annual 20% increase to reach its goal.

Wattay International Airport

Sorry, this isn’t a “dance in the streets” moment for Visit Laos-China Year. Where is the chart with actual numbers, and “1 million” in the top right-hand corner? Last year, Chinese arrivals soared 26% to reach 805,833. Laos is now shooting for a 20% gain on the back of Laos-China campaign. Through H1, Laos is already falling far short. Pray for a big H2.

And why aren’t more Chinese coming already? For years, Thailand has been on the top of the charts, and solidly remains there, in spite of a spate of declines in past years. Maybe the Kingdom has started to turn around, as they stepped ahead 1% in H1 2019. Note that Thailand ranked as the 30th largest global outbound market, according “Thailand Outbound Travel Report 2018.”

So, where does China stand on the outbound market scale? First place, as it has for years, and many spend big. Total expenditures by Chinese tourists for 2018 were around USD120 billion. How would you like just .1% of that? A cool USD 120 million according my lousy math…and they’re right next door. But the MoICT rarely publishes tourism revenue until the year-end statistic report (Download at bottom of this page). That’s what we should really be looking at…the money.

Still, the unnamed official” told Vientiane Times “he believed visitor numbers were up because of the ongoing Visit Laos-China Year campaign.” The details of this year’s promotion have not been clearly defined, though several activities have been reported.

But what no one knows, there is a secret Visit Lao Vietnam Year 2019 going on. Vietnam stood as Laos’ second top source market last year with 867,000 visitors on an annual drop of 2%. However, their numbers soared 20% in the first quarter of 2019 compared to last year, before finishing H1 with a climb of 11%.

Korean arrivals remained dismal in H1, sinking 20% from the same period in 2018, according to the MoICT. On an overly positive note, their numbers plummeted 35% in the first three months of 2019, so while nose diving, Korean figures are starting to slightly pull up, but nowhere near the annual leaps between 2013-2018. Read “Where have all the Koreans gone.”     

Vientiane Times also noted Japanese tourist arrivals were down by 13%, but they didn’t touch the rest of planet. Possibly the rest of ASEAN, Asia-Pacific, and the West are so low as to be inconsequential.

“The official said the decline in arrivals from some countries was due to circumstances beyond the authorities’ control. Some people stayed away because they were unsure of the quality of services here,” Vientiane Times reported. The official also cited “several annoyances, such as poor road access to tourist sites.”

The private sector has other views on how to boost visitor numbers, in spite of the 5% HI climb. A strong, ongoing marketing and promotion drive are high on the wish list, with many businesses joining hands to attend top trade shows, publish and distribute an annual MICE brochure, and develop circuits and routes that connect several key destinations.

The Khamouanne Loop is taking off. Southern Lao waterfall and coffee circuits are becoming more popular. The recently formed Lao Hotel Alliance (LHA) is pushing a circuit in northern Laos. The LHA held a FAM trip covering the route, which was well-received by some 45 foreign travel agents. Adventure travel and bikepacking are also taking hold, and the Plain of Jars just hit the UNESCO list.  

Air access remains an issue. Lao Airlines is introducing more routes to China and hopes to launch a southern Japanese route in November. However, only a handful of regional airlines offer Lao service, mostly to Vientiane and Luang Prabang. A few foreign flights trickle into Southern Laos. Lao Skyway joins the national flagship in strengthening domestic routes.

This is welcome, but hotels and tour operators are looking at Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taiwan, Malaysia, and beyond. There are still no flights connecting Laos with Myanmar, and flights to Cambodia are few and far between. Better air connectivity in the Mekong Region would help foreign travel agents and FITs plan itineraries that include Laos.

The government source pointed to areas where the public and private sector are teaming to upgrade tourist sites and hold activities. The source notes Vang Vieng is improving its service quality, adjusted food and accommodation prices as well as fees to attractions.

Luang Prabang restaurants have added Chinese dishes to their menus, and signs in Chinese have been installed at popular tourist sites. Every little bit helps.

The bottom line is the 2019 arrival target of 4.5 million tourists. Seems doable thanks to decent H1 results and high season yet to come. Time will tell.

As for the success of Visit Lao-China Year…let’s see if Laos gets that million.

Download the “2018 Statistical Report on Tourism in Laos”.  


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