Vang Vieng heads down river
BANGKOK, 2 July 2012: Lao officials say they are tackling problems related to drug abuse and security that threaten the future of Vang Vieng a small riverside town on the road to Luang Prabang.
Once praised for its clean environment and laid-back lifestyle, the town is now depicted as a cultural slum where drug and drink abuse threaten its long-term future.
Vang Vieng is located on the Nam Xong River and surrounded by limestone karsts and should be famous for its rafting, treks and its clean environment.
But it is now more famous for its tourist ghetto packed with bars, that attract hordes of backpacking tourists. Tourism officials had hoped it would grow out of that phase and develop into an up-market resort by the river. It is the recognised transit stop for overland travellers heading for Luang Prabang (166 km from the capital city and 200 km from the World Heritage town).
Instead of moving up-market, over the last 10 years Lao officials have watched this small riverside village implode mainly due to failing security, frequent river accidents involving drunk tourists and a general lack of respect for the local community.
Officials privately criticise the decline, but on the internet the criticism is much more focused claiming female tourists parade through the village dressed only in scanty bikinis and the bars are crammed with drunk tourists, who act in a manner that upsets local residents. There are frequent accidents on the roads and river while petty theft is on the increase.
Local residents complain to the police that bars and night clubs remain open until dawn, music blaring to disturb a once quiet rural town’s environment.
If that was not enough, pollution is now taking its toll on the once clean Nam Xong River, mainly due to a mushrooming of accommodation, bars and restaurant businesses. Critics say there are no controls. Everyone in business on the river bank pours untreated waste water and sewage into the river.
Officials admit they have a growing drug problem, but probably more damage is done by beer swilling tourists who “tube” down the Nam Xong River when drunk causing accidents and fatalities that have made headlines in the international media. Last year, 22 tourists drowned or died of injuries while tubing on the river.
Officials told TTR Weekly, Vang Vieng could never return to the old days when it was tagged a chill-out spot for family tourists. The challenge is now to stem the tide that threatens to overrun Vang Vieng completely and introduce regulations to control future development.
When asked for a comment, Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office executive director, Mason Florence, expressed concern that the riverside entertainment zone would spread to other parts of the town. At present most of the excesses are at riverside pubs or those on an adjacent road running parallel to the river.
Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism deputy director-general, tourism marketing and promotion department, Douangpaseuth Paphatsalang, said the government realised the negative impact of tourism and wanted to address any failures in a timely manner to avoid ruining the country’s economy.
Local critics are often told to shut up because their negative comments could impact on the economy, but a Google search on Vang Vieng returns a mass of negative comment on the problems the resort town now faces.
See You Tube Crazy Tubing in Vang Vieng http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QXeGfAo1uQ
“The government directed the Ministry of Public Security, our ministry and local officers will talk with business operators, informing them about the regulations and laws regarding tourist protection, “ Mr Douangppaseuth said.
“Business operators will be given a warning and if they are found violating regulations again they will lose their licenses.”
Mr Douangppaseuth stressed that local guides were very important because they could explain to visitors how to behave when travelling in Laos.
Dos and Don’ts posters and leaflets were produced and distributed at gateways to help tourists understand Lao culture and act respectfully.
In terms of safety, he said warning signs were placed in prominent places to flag spots on the river where it was dangerous to swim.
The Asian Development Bank’s GMS Sustainable Tourism Development Project is addressing various environmental and safety issues, related to Vang Vieng.
ADB, social sector specialist, Steven Schipani, reported that approximately 700 metres of main storm drains and 1,662 meters of side drains had been improved in the urban core of Vang Vieng, essentially a three street town.
Sidewalks with lighting have been extended by 2,984 m, and gross pollutant traps installed in the three main storm drains. Storm water in the southern part of town is now channelled into a wetland filter before it discharges into the Nam Xong River, he said.
The project has also supported installation of septic tanks at key locations along the Nam Xong River for use by residences and local enterprises. New equipment supplied by the project has helped Vang Vieng Urban Management Authority provide more reliable waste collection services to the 11,910 residents living in the town’s core urban area.
Vang Vieng District authorities have recently launched the “clean, green, safe and friendly” campaign to raise environmental awareness among local residents and visitors.