Laos reaps tourism gold


From here on, Laos is expected to no longer sport a tag as an exotic, landlocked country in Southeast Asia that has innocently locked itself in from the rest of the region, the continent and the world—thanks to its modest but laudable hosting of the 25th Southeast Asian Games.

For 11 days in December—from the 9th to the 19th—Laos opened itself to the rest of the world, parading its capital Vientiane not only as a tourist destination where visitors could feel safe, but also as an investment prospect.

Laid-back and stress-free, Vientiane embraced more than 3,000 athletes and as many sports officials and thousands more tourists during the Games, where it showed off the generosity of 7 million people wishing to be part of the global community.

Vientiane Hotel and Restaurant Association president Oudet Souvannavong said most of the 7,000 hotel and guesthouse rooms in Vientiane were fully booked for the event.

“Heavy booking of hotel rooms was in accordance with what we expected,” Oudet said, adding that about 3,000 hotel and guesthouse guests were delegates from Asean member countries.

Businesses and economists said visitors spent at least US$100 a day during their stay in Laos. Thus, it netted a total $700,000 a day—injected into the Lao tourism industry and related businesses in Vientiane.

Lao Association of Travel Agents head Bouakhao Phomsouvanh said the money helped the Lao tourism industry recover after the fallout from the global financial crisis, which caused a major drop in tourist arrivals.

About 15 to 20 percent of tourists canceled their trips to Laos in late 2008 and early 2009 after the global financial crisis and the outbreak of the H1N1 virus.

Bouakhao said that were it not for SEA Games, the tourism industry would have suffered further from the economic downturn. He noted that before the crisis and the H1N1 outbreak, an increasing number of tourists from European countries had given the industry a boost.

The Games, Bouakhao added, not only benefited hotels and restaurants but also vendors hawking souvenirs and T-shirts to spectators.

Many noodle shops in the Sihom area of central Vientiane were crowded with customers. Vendors at Thongkhankham market also made a killing, but they did not jack up their prices and were happy to take part in hosting the event.

Lao National Chamber of Industry and Commerce Secretary General Khanthalavong Dalavong said the government’s investment in the event boosted economic growth.

The Games allowed Laos, a country a little smaller than the Philippines with a land area of 91,400 square miles, to put its best foot forward on the sporting arena.

It won a total 33-25-52 gold-silver-bronze, an enormous improvement from the 5-7-32 it clinched in Korat (Thailand) two years ago. The Lao athletes—who finished seventh overall, two rungs behind the Philippines (38 gold medals)—also surpassed their 25-gold target.

In the Games’ 25th edition, Thailand repeated its feat as overall champion with 86 gold medals, followed by Vietnam (83), Indonesia (43), Malaysia (40), Philippines, Singapore (33-30-25), Laos, Myanmar (12), Cambodia (3), Brunei (1) and East Timor (3 bronzes).

Laos languished in sporting backwaters and did not win its first SEA Games gold medal until 1999—Laos was a founding member of the Games in 1959 (December 12 to 17) with Burma, Malaya (Malaysia), Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Thailand hosted the inaugurals where 527 athletes competed in 12 sports.

Its modest hosting of the Games—its first in 50 years—reaped for Laos positive reviews, including one from the International Olympic Committee that handed the hosts the prestigious President’s Trophy.

But excellence on the sporting arena was not the only benefit the Lao people have reaped, according to Laos Olympic Council deputy secretary general of Southanom Inthavong.

“The benefits from the SEA Games were not restricted to sports alone. Laos was not just in the eyes of Southeast Asian countries but also the whole world for two weeks. The positive impact was felt in the economic and tourism sectors as well.”

He added: “The successful staging of the Games opened the door for us to host other international sports events. It might not rank as the best-organized SEA Games but Laos has gotten the job done by overcoming so many restrictions in such a short period of time.”

Laos had constructed and upgraded its stadiums, training centers, accommodations, transport and tourism for the Games.

Vientiane, home to 97 hotels, 69 restaurants and 60 tourism companies, spent more than 12 billion kip (nearly US$1.3 million) for accommodations, improving the city’s appearance and expanding its public transport network.

Savannakhet province spent more than 65 billion kip (US$7 million) in upgrading infrastructure for the soccer events, and Luang Prabang province rebuilt its existing stadium for the track and field events.

A brand-new 18-hole golf course (which will eventually be expanded to 27 holes) located inside Phokham village at Xaythany district was built to a tune of $15 million with the help of the Asean Civil Bridge-Road Company and later, the Booyoung Company from South Korea.

The international standard archery field located in Dongsanghin village in Xaythany district also cost the government 200 million kip.

A little help from neighbors

Vietnam, which the Lao people call “Big Brother,” helped out in the staging and organization of the competitions, and also foot the bill on a new $19-million Games Village. Thailand gave out exchange lessons for Laos’s officials for pointers during the Games’ preparation stage, which was worth some US$2.9 million.

Singapore provided teachers and technicians, and organizations such as the Yuuwakai Association of Japan donated US$100,000 for the new Karatedo training center.

China also shouldered the main cost for the new Laos National Stadium estimated at US$85 million.

Just how Laos showed itself to the world was evident in the television coverage of the Games. A total of 14 television channels in Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the host country aired the competitions live from where they happened.

Laos, indeed, is looking differently from the world’s perspective, after the Games. It seems quite right that during the 11 days of the SEA Games the Lao people incessantly chanted: Lao Su! Su! (That means Go! Go! Lao!). The Games have begun and ended. A much better future for Laos is unfolding.