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LAOS
Eco-Tourism
August 12, 2007


Mekong Tourism at the crossroads: A report on the Lao Eco-Tourism Forum
By Reinhard Hohler, Chiang Mai

Eco-Tourism is a modern buzzword. There is no clear internationally accepted
definition of the term, but in Laos - as a small member country of the
Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) - Eco-Tourism is a rapidly growing sector
within the global and regional tourism industry.

How important the Eco-Tourism concept is for the development of the Lao
People's Democratic Republic was clearly demonstrated at the opening
ceremony of this year's third annual Lao Eco-Tourism Forum held at the Don
Chan Palace Hotel in Vientiane on July 26-29. H.E. Mr. Bouasone Bouphavanh,
Prime Minister of the Lao P.D.R., personally gave the welcome speech.

In the speech, Laos was introduced as the "Switzerland of Southeast Asia and
the GMS" with its amazing UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Luang Prabang and
Wat Phu Champasak. The Plain of Jars is currently nominated as the country's
third World Heritage Site in addition to others in waiting. Furthermore,
there are a network of 20 National Protected Areas, the mighty Mekong River
and its tributaries, a myriad of waterfalls, mountain caves and a diverse
flora and fauna that successfully support tourism to be part of a clean,
green industry without smoke or pollution.

Due to its geographic location in the heart of Indochina, the country is
fast becoming the important "land link" bridging Thailand, Myanmar, China,
Vietnam and Cambodia, which are the other members of the GMS regional
scheme. The Lao Government is making large investments in public
infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and airports. There are now at least
18 international immigration border crossings, 13 of which offer visa on
arrival. In 1991 there were counted less than 40.000 arrivals compared to
1.2 million in 2006. In the first three months of 2007, arrivals were up to
30% when compared to the same period last year. Also, the Lao Government has
now adopted a National Tourism Development Strategy through 2020 and is
guiding its implementation in order to ensure that the "Jewel of the Mekong"
receives more and more visitors from around the world.

The Eco-Tourism Forum started with a one-day conference, including panel
discussions about the successes and potentials for developing Eco-Tourism
programs that support poverty alleviation and the protection of natural and
cultural sites in the Mekong region. "On the way to become a leisure
society, which is highly addictive, finding the right balancing is important
for all the players in a more and more competitive surrounding," Mr. Peter
Semone told to the audience, presently being an Eco-Tourism expert working
in Vietnam.

Introduced were the showcases of Lisu Lodge in Northern Thailand, a project
of Asian Oasis Company in Bangkok, and community-based tourism work near the
rock castle of Sigiriya, a project by Jetwing Hotels in Sri Lanka. Dr. Paul
Rogers, Senior Tourism Adviser of SNV Netherlands Development Organisation
in the Lao P.D.R., promoted the locality of Vieng Xay in Hua Phanh Province,
where 486 caves are waiting to get explored as the birthplace of the modern
Lao Nation.

Mr. Alfredo Perdiguero, Senior Economist of the Asian Development Bank in
Manila, gave a much-needed explanation, how to implement the GMS Tourism
Development Strategy, especially in Laos. The four targeted provinces are
Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Khammuan and Champasak, where new
infrastructure projects will facilitate the movement of tourists both
between and within provinces.

On the sidelines of the forum, there was the discussion among experts what
to do next with the vacant position of the Mekong Tourism Co-ordinating
Office (MTCO) Director attached to Bangkok's Ministry of Tourism and Sports,
as the former director, Mr. Stephen Yong from Singapore, has resigned in
early July. Contrary to the suggestion of the Ministry's Deputy Permanent
Secretary Dr Sasithara Pichaichannarong to have a new director from within
the GMS countries, the author of this article holds the view that the
director should come from outside the GMS. Importantly, the director has to
be familiar with all six countries of the GMS. Also, the office should be
independently run and be managed in a city of the Mekong region, such as
Chiang Mai, Vientiane or Phnom Penh, and should not be in Bangkok, which is
actually outside the GMS. Last not least, the Mekong region's projects
should be limited to the Mekong River Basin - exclusively by definition.

The conference day ended with a press conference, where Ambassador Vang
Rattanavong, Vice-Chairman of the Lao National Tourism Administration
(LNTA), revealed the number of some 273 participants of the forum and
mentioned the three most important industries in Laos for development,
namely hydropower, mining and tourism. He also mentioned the upcoming
Elephant Festival, which will be in Pak Lay, Xayaboury Province, on February
16-17, 2008. Also not to be missed should be the annual That Luang Festival
at Vientiane in the month of November.

The "Mekong Night" gala dinner reception exposed Lao musical and artistic
traditions to the finest, while on the second night of the Lao Eco-Tourism
Forum the largest "basi pa kuan" was on display at the Lao National Cultural
Hall. The giant tree brings good luck and staying healthy for all the
visitors to attend.

Without doubt, the highlight of the forum was a familiarisation excursion to
the amazing Konglor Cave in Khammuan Province on July 28-29. The tour for 10
pax was fully hosted by Green Discovery Tours in Vientiane and led south to
the Phu Hinboun National Protected Area. We had lunch in scenic Khun Kham
Village and in the late afternoon had a three-hours boat ride through
beautiful karst landscape to Ban Konglor, where was the opportunity for a
home stay night with Lao villagers.

Next morning, we had a short boat ride with local fishermen to the entrance
of the spectacular cave, where an underground river runs through for the
length of some 7.5km. After hauling the wooden boats over several rapids, we
finally emerged on the other side of the mountain chain some two hours
later. Imagine, when we returned to Vientiane after a rustic lunch in the
Auberge Sala Hinboun. It was 8 p.m. when we arrived back at the Don Chan
Palace Hotel in Vientiane - having fully experienced the natural beauty of
Laos and the gentleness of its people.

For further information, please contact GMS Media Travel Consultant Reinhard
Hohler by e-mail:  <mailto:sara@cmnet.co.th> sara@cmnet.co.th

 

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