Can Tourism Development be Compatible with Sustainability in Laos: a Debate Under LANITH Auspices

Photo source: Lao PDR Consulate, Slovak Republic

Symposium organised in Vientiane by Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality looks at the compatibility between tourism development and its sustainable character.

“Laos has the opportunity to become the first country to reset its travel and tourism agenda in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” said in a keynote speech Bangkok-based tourism veteran Imtiaz Muqbil during the event, “SDGs and Tourism…Stimulating the Conversation,” held on 4 December 2015, at Lanith’s recently-opened tourism and hospitality “Center of Excellence” in Vientiane.

Luxembourg Development Cooperation (LuxDev) funded the construction of Lanith’s new fully-equipped school, with Luxembourg’s Charge d’affaires for Laos and Vietnam, Claude Jentgen, opening the event. Mr. Muqbil led off by challenging the UN-initiated SDGs’ tagline, “From Development to Engagement”, suggesting that “sustainable development” is an oxymoron. “By definition, development is not sustainable. It just replaces one set of problems with another.”

Laos seems however well-positioned to be a leader in the global tourism industry’s attempt to achieve the 17 SDGs, which are following on from the 15-year era of the Millennium Development Goals. The country’s advantages include a small population and strong tourism growth, which has helped reduce poverty. In 2014, total international arrivals jumped 10.1 percent to 4.16 million visitors.

It was pointed out that these promising arrival figures mask the fact that Laos has the lowest visitor expenditure rate in Asia. Mr Muqbil emphasized the importance of finding the right balance in development, and not just focus on expansion. “The biggest imbalance now is the gap between marketing and management,” he said.ASEAN TRAVEL UN SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS

The subsequent panel discussion sparked a lively debate among the 50-plus symposium delegates. Saysamone Srithirath, Managing Director of Nakarath Travel, kicked off the conversation by stating the SDGs are not new. “Only the words are new, but it’s happening already. The goals just haven’t been fully realized.”

Panelist Jennifer Smith, TREE Alliance Coordinator for Laos which operates Makphet Restaurant that helps street kids, said her biggest worry is in “Disneyfying” Laos’ destinations and attractions.

Oliver Horn, General Manager of the Crowne Plaza Hotel Vientiane, slated to open next year, said, “The part that hits home is responsibility for the environment and local community…We make a lot of money from communities and we want to give back.”

Peter Hansen, Chief Technical Adviser for LuxDev’s rural development project in Laos, pointed to the need to “keep the discussion real. SDGs are not easy to quantify. It’s all or nothing. I see a big challenge in achieving the SDGs, and it’s not just in tourism.”

The panel addressed public-private sector partnerships (PPPs), and whether they work in Laos. Ms. Srithirath said she has seen some progress, “but sometimes they seem to go nowhere. They sound good on paper, but are not easy to do.”

Mr. Horn observed, “PPPs tend to go well when the private sector has one voice. The onus is on the private sector to tell the government what you want, and not tell them what to do. If we don’t speak with one voice, no one listens to us.”

The panel and audience touched on the ODP’s role. Ms. Srithirath said they help the private sector create new products, but, “The private sector needs to take it to the next level for sustainability.”

Luang Prabang View General Manager John Morris Williams agreed, stating, “We can’t rely on donors forever. Development partners are coming in now to support marketing, but one day they’ll disappear. The private sector needs to take the responsibility and market as a team for sustainability.”

Mr. Horn said, “If I had a wish for the development community, it would be for them to inform the private sector on what project is where and who is doing what…I’m sure there are enough projects out there for partnerships, but the private sector needs to know.”

Rik Ponne, a veteran tourism development adviser, noted the need for better communication between the public and private sectors. He observed that there is some mistrust between the two, mostly due to the non-clarity in defining their respective roles. Mr Horn concluded, “I didn’t know what the SDGs were before I came to Laos. Frameworks don’t deliver anything. Sometimes we make things too difficult, but we can take actions today to help people.