Landlocked Laos has been rythmed for ever by the Mekong river. Along the 1,835 km long river, life has been serene, peaceful. For most of the population living along the Mekong, fishery and agriculture were the main source of income for centuries. In the last 20 years, tourism has become an increasingly important source of revenues.
The pace of tourism impact over Laos is now accelerating. Laos receives per year 4.5 million foreign tourist arrivals but the country needs now to fine tune its tourism offer. Most visitors go to Vientiane, Vang Vien (Vientiane province), Savannakhet and Champasak in the South as well as Luang Prabang. The Tourism along the Mekong River is still relatively underdeveloped especially along the Northern part of the river, which stretches from the border to China and Myanmar up to Luang Prabang. So far, the potential of the Mekong has not been fully exploited. “Thet are no investors for now who wants to create a cruise product along the entire river from the Chinese border to Luang Prabang or Vientiane and even further down to the South although the river is navigable practically all along”, says Duan Chimphalee, Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office Operating Manager.
Officials will only start to invest in an area if they see a demand from tourists. This thinking explains why Laos moves at a slow pace to open new destnations to tourism. “The government should initiate the first step to bring in investors or to raise interest of the private sector. They will consequently create demand rather than waiting for it”, estimates Ms. Chimphalee.
However Laos tourism next destination could be the Northern Mekong between Houayxay and Vientiane. Especially as the opening of new border checkpoints makes visitors arrivals to the area easier. From Nan in Thailand to Nam Ngeun in Laos, travel time along the highway is less than two hours for the 150 km-long ride.
“We see the seeds of changes since an international cross-borders checkpoint was opened five years”, tells Hossein Moazzam , Resident Manager of the Luang Say Lodge and Cruises in Pakbeng, in Oudomxay province. Luang Say lodge and Mekong cruises in the area opened back to 1998 and were the first to offer a world-class tourism product in that area with packages integrating a two-day/three-day cruise including an overnight at the Luang Say Lodge. “We have some 6,000 to 7,000 visitors per year for our cruises while Pakbeng accommodates approximately 70,000 tourists per year”, adds Mr. Moazzam.
Public busses services, taxis, private transfer by tour companies are widely available from both sides of the border. Some 100,000 visitors per year do cross the border at Nam Neung (Laos)/Ban Huai Kon(Thailand). And more is likely to happen as another checkpoint is due to open soon “bringing tourists directly from Thailand to Sapa in Northern Vietnam”, stresses the Manager of Luang Say Lodge.
Both the private sector and the administration need now to work on two fields: raising the quality of the infrastructure and diversify the tourism product. In the first case, there is a need to improve traveller’s experience who cross the border. “Crossing the border today is like to be in the middle of nowhere”, describes Maciek Klimowicz, a young travel blogger from Poland. “We certainly need to imrpove facilities when people enter into Laos. Such as creating a sheltered walkway, putting information boards with details over public busses connection, emergency phone numbers or een a location map. This is an enquiry that the private sector should raise when meeting with officials”, acknowledges Hossein Moazzam.
“There is also a need for creativity in products development. Many people have no idea what to do in the area beside watching the sunset over the Mekong river and relax. They are plenty of opportunities to explore but locals need to think beyond their own comfort zone”, explains Duan Chimphalee. Among the most obvious products to be offered in the area would be agro-tourism linked to culinary experiences, fishing, well-being experiences and of course, the discovery of less-known areas and local areas.
“We have for example near to Pakbeng a mountain with 1,000 year old trees offering fantastic views over the Mekong river. Or they are also some interesting temples with old villages around”, adds Hossein Moazzam.
Even some one of Pakbeng most painful weaknesses – in the mind of many travellers- could be turned into a selling point. Many hotels have only limited internet connections in this remote corner from Laos. Why not then to create “Internet Detox Packages”? The idea makes already its way in the USA or in Europe with some hotels promising a complete disconnected time- a wonderful opportunity for a quality time. Especially for couples. “This is definitely an idea that we should explore”, says Mr. Hossein.