LUANG PRABANG, 14 June 2017: Lao PDR’s World Heritage town Luang Prabang bucked the country’s negative trend in tourist arrivals in 2016 delivering a 5.88% increase, the town’s tourism department reported on the sidelines of the Mekong Tourism Forum last week.
Addressing a press conference, Luang Prabang deputy director Department of Information, Culture and Tourism, Soudaphone Khomthavong, said the destination continues to see positive results during the first quarter of this year, the only province to do so.
Overall, Laos closed 2016 with 4.68 million tourist arrivals, down 12.66% from 4.23 million in 2015. The last time the country saw its tourist arrivals dip was in 2001 and again in 2003. The drop in 2001 was blamed on the terror attack in the US and in 2003 on the SARS epidemic in Asia.
The 2016 dip that extends into the first quarter of this year for every destination, except Luang Prabang, is more worrisome. There are no obvious culprits to blame, other than a loss of competitive price edge, poor accessibility, or economic factors in European source markets.
The picture is decidedly gloomy. During the first quarter of this year tourist arrivals dropped 12% to 1.11 million, down from 1.24 million in the first quarter of 2016.
But Luang Prabang continues to buck the trend and officials said it was mainly due to concerted efforts to attract more airlines.
In 2016 the town recorded 607,584 visitors arriving by land and air transport, compared with 607,594 in 2015, an increase of 5.88%.
“We worked hard to draw more tourists and this was achieved by new flights from the AirAsia group from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur and more recently by Silk Air and charter flights from China.”
China is the top source market for both the country at large and Luang Prabang in particular. Chinese number-plated cars are a common sight in the town year-round.
Chinese tourists are now clearly outnumbering Thai travellers who were, up until 2016, the top visitor source for Laos. The change occurred in 2016 when 63,290 Chinese visited the World Heritage town compared with 61,406 Thai travellers.
“We have a plan to join with the private sector and hotel association and airlines to promote what we call the green season rather than the rainy season in Luang Prabang,” Soudaphone explained.
The rainy season plays havoc to the town’s hotel occupancies. They drop dramatically from around 90% at the close of the cool season in March to as low as 15% during the rainy season months, May through to September.
A hotelier told TTR Weekly that within a month of the rains starting, occupancies tumble.
“Our breakeven requires a 45% occupancy, but we have to survive for five months with around 15% to 20%.”
Luang Prabang’s year-round occupancy is officially declared at 75% based on national statistics for 2016. That performance indicator was helped along by a decline in sellable rooms due to a drop in the overall room count from 5,005 in 2015 to 4,844 in 2016.
Rebranding a rainy season ‘green’ may sound like a desperate and futile manoeuvre, but it illustrates the challenges hotels and tourism companies face attempting to raise their game plan.
However, there is considerable optimism that the 2015/ 2016 decision to open Luang Prabang to low-cost airlines will continue to encourage more flights.
In 2016, 140,598 visitors arrived at the airport up 14.89% on 122,595 visitors in 2015 an increase mainly attributed to AirAsia group flights.
“More flights are planned so we hope that next year we can improve arrivals also in the low season,” Soudaphone noted.
SilkAir is doing well as it covers both Vientiane and Luang Prabang with a service that allows passengers to visit the two destinations on a single fare.
Singapore is viewed as a major gateway with vast potential to deliver tourists to Laos if there are more direct flights. SilkAir serves the route Singapore- Vientiane-Luang Prabang- Singapore, with its flights connecting to Singapore Airlines’ long-haul services to and from Changi Airport.
But the hotel scene at the upscale or luxury level is not so positive. Opening the luxury Pullman property on the outskirts of town is proving a challenge. The Accor managed hotel, owned by Chinese investors, is almost two years behind schedule. The management says it is targeting an opening date at the end of the year, but a site inspection led by Asian Trails chairman Luzi Matzig left the scene, last week, doubting if the latest target date was achievable. Rosewood is far down track beyond the framework of target opening dates.
Visit Laos Year due to kick-off 27 September, this year, is likely to give the country’s tourism a boost.
Commenting on the Visit Year promotions, Sounh Manivong, director general Tourism Development Department Ministry of Information Culture and Tourism said: “Our government gave the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism approval to launch Visit Laos Year, 27 September, to coincide with the UN World Tourism Day.”
Lao PDR’s Prime Minister will open World Tourism Day celebrations at a ceremony in Vientiane and officially declare the opening of Visit Laos Year 2018. UNWTO and ASEAN tourism leaders are expected to attend.
Sounh added that the country will expand its e-passport scheme by 2018 for Visit Laos Year and introduce an eVisa scheme to boost travel arrivals from countries that require visas.
Visa-free travel will also be extended to more countries to boost travel for the celebratory year.