Should Laos fully reopen tourism and allow free independent travelers to enter the country? What might the future hold if group tours fail to arrive?
In 2019, tourism contributed 10% to the world’s GDP; in Laos, the industry made up 12% of the country’s GDP. Tourism and related industries employed nearly 400,000 people and were a sustainable way to improve per-capita income for the population – particularly the poor – when compared with extractive sectors like mining or timber.
But come Covid-19 and all its restrictions, this stream of income has been cut off, directly impacting many of Laos’ most vulnerable for nearly two years.
The economy has been devastated, while the local currency has sunk to an all-time low, with the cost of petrol and other imported goods continuing to rise. Economic disparity has been exacerbated, and tourism workers have lost their livelihoods, adding to the growing number of unemployed.
Although Laos has technically been open for tourism under the Green Zone Travel Plan for nearly a month, few tourists have arrived in the country. One highly publicized South Korean school group arrived for a golfing tour, with little evidence of anyone else making the trip.
This is likely because the barriers to entry remain restrictively high, with rules and regulations unclear and uncommunicated. From enigmatic visa procedures, unclear rules for individual or group travel, to irregular flights: it is little wonder that tourists have given Laos a miss.
Compared to its neighbors, limited and expensive regional flights to Laos have made it a difficult country for tourists to reach, while a lack of clear communication with the global travel market means those abroad do not feel confident promoting Laos as a destination.
Ideally, tourism policy should be tourist-centric and promote growth in this vital sector of the economy. In light of that, here are five concrete steps Laos could take to get back on the path to a real reopening:
Bring Back the Flights
Regular commercial air, land, and rail transport links should be broadly reinstated with Laos’ neighbors to support the flow of travelers. New flight routes and airport slots need to be negotiated now while many airports in the region are underutilized. This could potentially open up new markets like The Philippines, Hong Kong, and Indonesia.
Decisions should be supported by experts who understand the intricacies of the tourist experience and are empowered to coordinate reopening policy across multiple sectors, move quickly, and take responsibility.
Allow Individual Travel and Reduce Quarantine
Allow vaccinated, individual travelers from any nationality to enter Laos without proscribed itineraries. With everyone fully vaccinated (visitors and locals alike) there is no reason to keep tourists at arm’s length, but rather, they should be treated as important guests.
People want to explore Laos at their own pace and in accordance with their own interests, and they absolutely do not want to languish in a lengthy quarantine. With the national vaccination rate now above 50%, decision-makers must cut through the bureaucracy governing tourism and reduce discouraging quarantine requirements, which affect even returning Lao nationals.
If a tourist is interested in coming to Laos, where might they find up-to-date entry information? Some clear, concise communication on how tourists can travel to Laos and what they can do when they arrive is vitally important to reopening. The Tourism Laos website lacks updated information about the current situation, while social media remains equally silent.
Traditionally, proximity tourism supplied Laos with 95% of its tourists. National marketing needs to be targeted and refined to attract new segments of this low-hanging fruit. But also, serious effort needs to go into reconnecting with the long-haul segments willing to spend more in the country.
Laos has navigated the Covid-19 crisis with a minimal loss of life, but the prolonged devastation to the livelihoods of those who remain can go on no longer. It’s time to get connected, reduce restrictions, and reopen our beautiful country to the world.