LAO and Chinese authorities are drawing up detailed plans for activities during Visit Laos-China Year 2019, the first time Laos has partnered with another country in such an event.
It seems that this initiative is widely welcomed, especially by tour and service operators. This is because their businesses stand to directly benefit from the expected influx of visitors from China and beyond.
But the extent to which Laos’ tourism industry can benefit from the campaign depends on how well prepared the authorities is to welcome and facilitate foreign holiday-makers.
Although the year 2019 began two weeks ago, no joint tourism calendar with details of activities, their precise time and location, has been made available.
Without such a programme, tour operators and hospitality service providers cannot include any planned activities in the package tours and services they offer their customers.
As far as tour operators are concerned, the late publication of a programme of events is damaging to their business, as they cannot advertise any Visit Laos-China Year activities.
A similar failing occurred last year when Laos launched the Visit Laos Year 2018 programme, which is believed by some to have significantly contributed to the fact that Laos failed to reach its target of five million visitors.
Many tour operators said their businesses did not benefit or only slightly benefited from the Visit Laos Year 2018 campaign, despite the government spending billions of kip. Most cited the slow appearance of any advertising and the lack of new tourism activities as the main reason for this failure.
Tour operators and hospitality service providers suggested that preparations should have been made and events advertised at least one or two years before the launch of the tourism-promotion event.
They said they need a certain amount of time to pass on this message to their customers, and foreign clients need time to plan their holidays and arrange to take time out from their busy work schedules.
Another lesson learnt from Visit Laos Year 2018 was that not many tour operators or hospitality service providers were included in the groups responsible for organising the campaign.
Thus it is important that tourism-related businesses from all areas of the industry are involved in planning for Visit Laos-China Year.
The participation of and consultation from businesses that are directly associated with tourists and better understand their character and preferences will help the government to run a better campaign and save money and manpower in this mission. Having state organisations doing everything is not a smart approach.
There is also the chronic problem of persuading the authorities in charge to address certain issues in order to grow the tourism industry.
These problems include the time-consuming paperwork process at border crossings, which annoys tourists when they enter and exit Laos.
Complaints have long been made that visitors have encountered too many inspections at checkpoints along roads in Laos. Worse, state officers even charge unjustified fees or fines at checkpoints and tourist sites.
Many tourist sites do not have proper facilities. Also, the entry fees at some tourist attractions are high, while the overall cost of living in Laos is higher than in neighbouring countries, making the general environment somewhat unfriendly for visitors.
A government report issued previously suggested that the cost of living in Laos was 10-20 per cent higher than in Thailand and Vietnam.
The fact that there are few diverse tourism activities and products in Laos appears to be another factor in hindering the growth of tourism.
Foreign tour operators have suggested that there is never enough content, especially on the internet and YouTube, about tourism activities, which means many people in foreign countries do not know about Laos and what the country has to offer.
The abovementioned problems appear to have had an adverse effect on the tourism industry, which has seen a decline in foreign tourist arrivals in recent years, even though many countries in the region have received more visitors.
The government is aware of these issues, but progress in finding or implementing solutions has been slow.
Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has given hope by pledging to remove the barriers to growth and facilitate the development of tourism, which the government has prioritised in its agenda to drive overall economic growth.
Action by the authorities in charge must be taken immediately and accordingly to realise the premier’s promise to make the most of Laos’ tourism potential. VIENTIANE TIMES/ASIA NEWS NETWORK