By Bernie Rosenbloom
Laos cracked open its border to foreign tourists on 1 January 2022, under the three-phase Green Travel Zone and Trail plan, which was revealed on 17 December 2021.
Tourists can only enter Laos by booking with a certified travel agent. They, in turn, must coordinate with hotels, guides, attraction, activities, and transportation companies certified under the LaoSafe program. Visitors must be tested before and after arrival, and quarantine in a Lao Covid hotel until they receive the results, usually less than 72 hours. Long-term visitors can apply for a non-immigrant visa with different restrictions.
Through 13 February, Vientiane welcomed 84 foreign tourists, while a group of some 100 Koreans cancelled, as their country now requires a 10-day quarantine upon their return, according to Director of the Vientiane Capital Department of Information, Culture, and Tourism, Ms Vilayvone Chanthalaty.
WeAreLao questioned local TAs and DMCs about the reopening process, and the eight respondents mentioned confusion and bureaucracy for stalling a smoother, more robust rollout, while their critique offered varying insights and opinions on how to improve:
Somdy Manivong: Director Mekong Leisure Laos Travel
Duangmala Phommavong: Managing Director EXO Travel Laos
John Morris Williams: Operation Director Treasure Group Laos
Outhay Khamsomphou: Founder Asia King Travel Laos
Inthy Deuansavanh: Founder Green Discovery Laos
Santixay Vongsanghane: Inbound Manager Asian Trails Laos
Tavanhak Abhay: Owner, Managing Director Tavanh Travel Service
Norakoun Tanseri: General Manager Lao Boutique Travel
1. Laos reopening to tourists has been lackluster, and local DMCs are not shy about stating their opinion on why, and how to move ahead.
Ms Duangmala said, “We see what our neighboring countries do, but we will not understand the whole New Normal’s process until we do it ourselves. After the first phrase, we will see clearer how to improve and make it work better for the second phrase and the rest of the year.”
Mr Williams agreed that “Most things take time and consideration,” but added, “There is a lot of public sector uncertainty as to what is being done. It is difficult for the private sector to understand policies for Green Zones in detail. There is very limited information, which needs to be expanded and made clearer.”
Mr Inthy also leaned this way. “I think many of the regulations are unclear for travel agents, especially the paperwork.” He added, “Only allowing tourists to come by (certified Laos Green) travel agents makes it difficult for many tourists, so they go to other destinations. We need to fully open to get more tourists.”
Adding to the documentation and lack of clarity, LaoSafe businesses and guides are intertwined with certified travel agents, which may also be slowing the reopening.
“The slow start is due, in part, by the rollout of the LaoSafe project, which is a first for most stakeholders,” Mr Outhay said. “Many businesses do not yet meet the guidelines for serving international tourists.”
Mr Somdy added, “The Laos National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LNCCI) and the Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism (MICT) require (Green Zone) agents to register for LaoSafe, which requires documents…and the number of operators registered with LaoSafe is still small. This may be partly due to late tax fines imposed during the lockdown…When the country reopens, and we have bookings, we are happy to pay taxes.
“I also think the plan to reopen on 1 January, was on short notice, and all related departments were not ready. Now, nothing much is happening, as document processing takes a long time. The MICT and LNCCI should work hard with the government to help us. They talk nice, but nothing happens.”
Mr Norakoun agreed. “It would be good if the MICT, and the Ministries of Health, Foreign Affairs and Immigration held a meeting to reach a final conclusion on procedures to welcome tourists.”
Mr Santixay chimed in on the hurdles facing the trade. “First, reopening involves several steps, which adds costs for tours. This deters clients, who prefer a simple process and are price conscious. Further, most of our clients are European, and so far, we do not have regular commercial flights to Laos.
“The Green Travel Zone is a great idea, but three steps is a bit much. Over 100 travel businesses have signed up for Green Travel Zones, but only a few have been approved, as far as I’m aware.”
Mr Santixay continued, “The ministry’s people are unable to answer questions from travel agents, so they are still hesitant to bring tourists…The numerous steps and procedures to obtaining travel permission and visas is complicated and time-consuming. Planning trips also makes it rather expensive for tourists.”
He concluded, “At the end of the day, travel agents remain unconvinced, and prefer to wait until everything is in place before confirming bookings.”
2. Marketing Laos to the world has been an ongoing issue. Covid has made this more difficult as the country tries to cut through the reopening clutter.
“Laos should be travelling to trade shows, even if it’s not for 2022,” said Mr Williams. “They should be looking ahead to 2023 and into 2024. We need a voice out there; they could look at new directions.”
Mr Outhay noted, “The MICT and LNCCI’s vision is more long term, and focusses on international travelers’ behavior. I think they are doing the best they can considering the global pandemic.”
Mr Santixay followed suit. “The MICT and LNCCI have done their best, but we would like them to propose the e-Visa and visa on arrival.”
Ms Tavanh is on board. “Immigration should be simple and take a few minutes. All border checkpoints should have travel information boards or centers, so people know where to go and how to get there. Transportation – taxis, busses, boats, and tuk-tuks – should be readily available and reasonably priced.”
She added, “(They should) create a travel app that provides GPS maps of all tourist spots in Laos…start a travel blog on that app where people can share their travel experiences. The vast majority of tourist attractions lack information boards…Tourists rely on Lonely Planet, which is sometimes incorrect.
Mr Inthy seems to feel the trade should not just rely on the government. “The private sector should be more involved in marketing Laos.”
Mr Norakoun bullet-pointed his suggestions: operate more international flight routes, open international land borders, make it easy for tourists to apply for visas on arrival, drop Covid tests at arrival points and just ask for proof of vaccinations, and no quarantine.
“Deciding on these steps needs to be made quickly. After that, the trade needs at least three months, as tourists need time to plan their vacations to Laos.”
3. Post-Covid competition with other destinations has led travel businesses to follow different paths, and with varying results.
“Asian Trails is promoting Laos through our head office’s marketing channel, but so far, there has not been much demand,” said Mr Santixay. “We just hope things will pick up after the end of the year.”
Mr Somdy said, “I have a few Thai group bookings in January and February 2022, but I cannot do them because of Thai-Lao border between Vientiane and Nong Khai is still closed to tourists (as of this writing).”
Ms Tavahn relies on communication. “We don’t do much other than get in touch with our partners on a regular basis via a newsletter update, and by notifying them of what’s occurring in Laos in terms of the Covid epidemic and the country’s reopening.”
She added, “We have bookings that have shifted from 2020 to the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023, indicating that people are still keen to travel and are waiting for the situation to improve.”
Ms Duangmala is heading in a similar direction. “EXO is continuing with the Lao Thiao Lao domestic campaign, as it maintains jobs and already exists. We are also communicating with overseas partners to inform them of the reopening and procedures, get feedback, and try to sell. We have a few bookings. This early stage will help us understand the situation to create an action plan for next year and the future.”
Mr Williams notes the challenge. “It is very difficult to sell hotels that cater to overseas clients…Agents I talk with are not looking at Laos for now. This could be because of Thailand. They do not discuss this much, but it seems they are trying to find a quick, safe, and close destination for their European clients.”
4. FITs seem to have been side-stepped under the Green Travel Zone, but agents are trying to cater to them, though regulations and price are a hindrance.
“If the government can reopen all borders without a complicated document process, and open attractions at a low cost for travelers, FITs will visit Laos (in growing numbers),” said Mr Somdy.
Others agree that opening to FITs should be on the table. Mr Santixay said, “We are in need of tourists, so FITs should be allowed to come in with the same conditions as GITs.
Mr Inthy stated, “I think if Laos needs FITs, then it is time to fully open.”
For Mr Williams, “It is simple. We should open the doors. It is time and (not opening) hurts the tourism sectors, both owners and employees. This has not been brought into the limelight as it should. I’m still trying to find out how many TAs and DMCs in Laos will bounce back or comeback to open again.”
Ms Duangmala takes a more measured approach. “During the pandemic, tourists need to be well served and receive assistance in case a Covid-19 emergency arises. This is the travel agents’ job. As soon as all public and private sector stakeholders have a clearer vision of the New Normal procedures, we should allow FITs to visit Laos, as it’s an effective way to welcome more visitors.”
Mr. Norakoun bullet pointed his suggestions: “Operate more international flights, open land borders, allow tourists to easily apply for visas on arrival, no Covid test at the arrival point – tourists just show their vaccination card, and no quarantine.”
It appears some take a slowly-but-surely approach to reopening, while others want to speed up the process. They agree to some extent that confusion and red tape are getting in the way, but there is a feeling of flexibility with the MICT and LNCCI to accelerate the return of tourism to Laos.