PAKSE, Laos – The 2011 Mekong Tourism Forum ended on Saturday in Laos’ southern city of Pakse, with industry experts highlighting opportunities for growth, but also the need for better management to avoid negative impacts.
Chairman of global tourism consultants Horwath HTL, Robert Hecker, said in his keynote address on the closing day that planning and control were vital to handling increasing arrival numbers.
“Once you have that balance you can start to manage what you’ re getting out of it; the income, the economic impacts, the social impacts. But without that planning aspect, you’re lost,” he said.
Steps toward wider tourism integration in the region have been achieved through large-scale infrastructure development, improved transport networks and better access.
“Now we can get people there, the question is how many?” Hecker asked, adding that spiralling arrivals risk “endangering the ultimate asset of why people come here in the first place.”
Hecker was part of a survey team hired by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) in 1996 to produce a conceptual tourism plan for the Mekong river, ahead of the inaugural Mekong Tourism Forum later that year.
The study identified the best river routes and how to link them to existing tourism circuits within the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) countries of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
One stretch of the Mekong favored by the survey team was between Houayxai in Laos’ north eastern Bokeo province, a border crossing point with Thailand, and the historic former Lao capital of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site.
Hecker said that today, this stretch is “already relatively well-popularised in terms of boats moving down the river from Houayxai to Luang Prabang, and that’s the ideal way to capture the Mekong experience.”
The increase in boat traffic between the two northern Lao towns has brought development of more guesthouses and activities for tourists along the river.
“The ability to make a much more enriched travel experience is available now. I can see that developing a lot more, the only issue is the fragility of Luang Prabang itself in terms of arrivals.”
One opportunity for rapidly boosting tourism throughout the region is simplifying visa regulations for those travelling across multiple GMS countries, although a surge in multi-country travellers would increase pressure on places like Luang Prabang.
“A single permit that you can use throughout the GMS is still on the wish list,” said Hecker, adding that “if it could be accomplished, it would be a catapult in terms of what tourism development could do.”
“Laos, Thailand and Cambodia are definitely leading the way in terms of crossing over borders and having a multi-country experience, but the visa issue is a hurdle to making that happen in the rest of the (GMS) countries.”
But for all their inconvenience for travellers in the region, the procedures and cost of visas have the net effects of controlling tourism numbers and generating valuable government income in developing countries.
“One aspect is eliminating the barriers to entry, so that you can have any possibility of visitor, and the second is control and planning, you have to have the two together; if you just focus on the first one, then it’s a disaster, and it keeps accelerating,” said Hecker.
“The region’s natural elements, the people, the way of life, the environment are its essential assets, and are highly sensitive to mass tourism.”
Protecting these assets is a huge challenge for local authorities, which are the first to gain benefit, but must also deal with the consequences of infrastructure development.
In Luang Prabang, plans are underway to expand the town’s airport runway by 2015 to cope with more flights, and a proposed railway between Kunming in China’s Yunnan province and the Lao capital of Vientiane, planned to pass through Luang Prabang, will also vastly increase arrivals.
Deputy Director General of Luang Prabang Provincial Tourism Department, Khamtanh Somphanvilay, told the forum “We have to prepare to manage tourism so it does not to bring a lot of impacts to local (communities), and that’s why we need a lot of stakeholders to be part of this team.”
Khamtanh added, “of course the government has to make the policies to manage tourism, given that it could be 35%-36% of the total income of (Luang Prabang) province. Nevertheless, we need to manage tourism in a proper way.”
The Lao National Tourism Administration forecasts Laos’ total tourism revenue at almost 400 million U.S. dollars in 2011, generated by over 2.6 million visitors.
Topics covered at the two day forum included strengthening regional tourism integration, ASEAN and GMS marketing strategies and areas of concern within the region’s tourism sector, such as how to protect children from child sex tourism and exploitation.
Delegates attended from Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and China. The Mekong Tourism Forum is an annual event hosted on rotation between the six participating countries.