MEKONG TOURISM FORUM SPECIAL: Laos Looks at Extending Visa Waiver to more Countries

The Visit Year Laos 2018 will be officially launched next September and could bear excellent news for travellers: the expansion of the visa abolition to new countries…

Laos tourism development is currently in trouble. Foreign tourist arrivals declined by 10% last year to 4.23 million travellers. And, according to first trends, the situation does not seem to improve in 2017. “We experienced a new decline of 11% during the first quarter”, admits Sounh Manivong, Director General of the Tourism Marketing Department and until recently of the Tourism Development Department. “They are issues which are beyond our control such as borders restriction or negative events in our neighbours. But there is also a need to redefine our marketing strategy”, he says.

Many markets are down. ASEAN arrivals declined for example by 14% between 2015 and 2016, driven by a collapse of Thai and Vietnamese arrivals, the two largest source countries for Laos. Visitors from Thailand are down by 13% to 2.09 million while Vietnam felt below the million travellers at 0.99 million (-16%). Cambodian arrivals were also down by 20% and Indonesian by 17%.

But not only regional markets softened last year. Some overseas markets show worrying weakening trends. Such as the UK (-6%), the Netherlands (-17%), Australia (-5%), Canada (-2%) or the USA (-8%). France, Malaysia and New Zealand remained stagnant last year.

Laos needs to refine its marketing, emphasizing even more its natural assets. Pristine forests and Mekong landscapes, authentic villages, historical cities, rich flora and fauna, these should be better highlighted by future tourism campaigns. But not only.

“The Visit Year Laos 2018 will also help us to strengthen our brand. We will launch it by next September on World Tourism Day. It will be an important event as we will also announce a revision of our visa policy”, indicates Sounh Manivong. According to the Director General for Tourism Marketing, the country is likely to expand its visa waiver policy to new countries. This would eventually include important overseas source markets such as Australia, France, Germany and the UK. Currently, a dozen of countries are exempted including all ASEAN members as well as to Japan, Luxembourg, Mongolia, Russia, South Korea and Switzerland.

A good progress has been the opening of airports to more international airlines, including low cost carriers, following the ratification by Lao PDR of ASEAN Open Sky agreement in April 2016. “We want also to emphasize visits during the Green Season during the Northern Hemisphere summer. It will be an opportunity to propose special offers and accommodation rates”, says Sounh Manivong. But looking at the strong growth rates obtained from countries on a visa-waiver scheme in Vietnam, this visa measure is certainly the one to have an immediate impact on tourist arrivals…