by Bernie Rosenbloom
Laos, China’s southern neighbour, continues to fend off the coronavirus, with no reported cases, due largely to a quick government response. Meanwhile, the country’s tourism and hospitality sector is feeling the pinch from widespread global fears.
According to Luang Prabang View General Manager John Morris Williams, hotels in the UNESCO World Heritage city are reporting cancellations of up to 40% of their bookings for early 2020, due to the virus scare, especially from European customers.
“We lost 17 sets of single occupancy bookings to a few good groups,” Mr Williams said. “On the other hand, booking towards Green Season and into high season are still coming in. People are waiting to see how long it takes to get the virus under control.”
Luang Prabang’s Sanakeo Boutique Hotel and Spa has also taken slap. “We’ve had a few cancellations via OTAs…eight room nights over a period of two weeks,” said the hotel’s General Manager Darren Mulqueen.
Laos Hospitality Division General Manager Luciano Lillus said, “We have received several cancellations so far for both properties, from B2B as well as from B2C side.” He added that there is a far lower pace in booking pick-ups than expected for January and February this year. “Last year, both months were immensely good,” he said.
“My real fear goes to the ‘grey area’ where we will not be able to measure the number of bookings that might have normally been made, and which will now not happen for this year.” Mr Lillius said.
However, tour operator, Tiger Trail, has not felt a major impact and only been bitten a few times.
“We have had some tours moved,” said Tiger Trail General Manager David Allan. “We are expecting to do this with some international agents this week as well…customers do not want to cancel but wait.”
While some tourists are placing their trips on pause, the Lao government has been quick to respond. On 2 February, Laos temporarily suspended the issuing of tourist visas at checkpoints bordering China.
Last week, Minister of Public Health Dr Bounkong Syhavong announced the formation of a task force to tighten screening and quarantine measures at risky locations, including immigration checkpoints, transportation centres, hospital and markets.
The committee is also arranging specialised healthcare points if a case is detected, publicising preventive measures and ways to check for symptoms and get treatment, and collecting travel data and monitoring the health status of travellers from China.
Last week, Lao Airlines announced it will temporarily suspend several routes to China. The national flagship carrier halted Vientiane-Shanghai flights on 30 January, and will pause flights from the Lao capital to Hangzhou on 5 February and Changzhou on 8 February.
The airline also put a hold on flights connecting Luang Prabang with Hainan and Shanghai, while those with Kunming, Changsha, and Jinghong will continue to operate.
“I believe the Lao Government has taken the initiative by closing off borders and setting up check-point monitoring facilities, along with cancelling flights to China,” Mr Williams said. “It seems every other country is in panic mode except Laos, which I think is a good thing. We have ‘remote’ borders that are controlled. The risk seems low.”
However, he noted that the government and tourism sector need to be more vocal in their messaging. “They should be reporting on their actions in the worldwide media to ensure people that Laos is safe and have done their part to curb any spread of the virus.”
Mr Lillus agreed, stating, “A clear announcement by Laos’ official channels regarding the real situation as it is (needs to be) published on international tourism platforms.”
Mr Allen questions the effectiveness of an official government statement. “If the Lao government makes a statement, it may have little effect, as Western governments and media have probably already done damage, but a statement from Laos could not harm.”
Mr Mulqueen sides with public statements, and points to what hotels can do during this uncertain time. “We just need to be vigilant and take precautions such as hand washing, and carefully looking at our customers to see if someone may be infected,” he said. “The main points are not to panic and educate our employees on the best ways to be careful and safe.”
Find the latest developments from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at www.mofa.gov.la.