Although Luang Prabang has seen in recent years an influx of new hotels and the construction of a new terminal, the former Laotian capital has so far managed to maintain its slow moving peaceful way of life, despite on-going gentrification of its historical centre.
Asked if he feels pleased with the way tourism grows in Luang Prabang, the Director of Marketing feels that tourism generally did all good for the city, especially bringing income for local communities. However, he just regrets that tourism generates a lot of garbage. « We need to treat on average some 70 tons of garbage per month. We still need capacities to treat and recycle such a number », he admits.
Luang Prabang UNESCO listing on the World Heritage List has helped preserving the ancient royal capital of massive development. UNESCO dictated strict rules to preserve the exceptional urban character of the historical centre and it looks like that local authorities have a strong will to stick to it. Many large development projects have in fact been then turned off or eventually transferred to other parts of the province.
This quality policy bears its fruits according to Luang Prabang Tourism Department. The total number of hotels and guest houses stood in 2015 at 99, representing slightly over 5,000 rooms and 6,500 beds. The number is down by over 10% over 2014 and helped make Luang Prabang one of the provinces with the highest occupancy in Lao PDR. If average occupancy in hotels and guest houses stood at 57% for the entire country, it however reached 73% in 2015, up by two percent points over 2014.
Luang Prabang feels ready to see more travellers coming. New flights are due to come with links to Singapore (Silk Air), Hong Kong (Hong Kong Express), Chiang Mai and probably Kuala Lumpur. Another factor which is likely to boost further tourism is the future high speed rail link between Kunming and Vientiane/Thailand.
« The government wans to control the flux of travellers and avoid a massive immigration of foreign workers in Luang Prabang as it would destroy the social fabric of the town. They are some 20,000 Chinese employees who are working on the high speed rail line project. They will then stay in a settlement far from the old town with all the facilities. The rail station itself will also be outside town, some 6 to 10 km away.”We discuss with authorities over the ways to exert control over the flux in town», explains Vongdavone Vongxayarath, who stresses that measures are being discussed such as introducting an entry tax for the protected historical area, like in Hoi An (Vietnam).
An important task for tourist authorities will be to create more leisure activities in the city area. So far, Luang Prabang tourism experience is all about discovering the old town with its numerous temples and charming colonial style houses, the visit of the National Museum in the former Royal Palace, the night market and surrounding waterfalls. To increase the length of stay, more need to be done to retain travellers. « We now have a brand new ethnic museum but more creativity is now necessary to build up our products range », admits Vongxayarath.
Some NGOs have now courses to learn local handicraft -such as Ock Pop Tok silk weaving for example- or learn Lao culinary. But the city still lacks art institutions such as new museums, a centre for architecture or art galleries with contemporary artists. Such initiatives could help strengthen the appeal of Luang Prabang as a true cultural and heritage hub not only in Laos but in the entire region. And turn into a model of a sustainable tourism development.