Laos Visit Year is hard to pin down

BANGKOK, 12 December 2017: Time is ticking by on the recently introduced Visit Laos Year 2018 without any accurate revelations on what makes the year special for international travellers.

Critics would be right to describe this “Visit Year” project as a botched effort by government to dupe travellers into thinking there are incentives and valuable reasons to buy a holiday in Laos during 2018.

There is a general consensus in the travel segment, particularly from the perspective of governments, that Visit Years can be announced at the drop of a hat. No one in the travel industry asks serious questions about strategy, budgets and specific Visit Year signature events.

It’s a combination of smoke and mirrors, a strategy that drives tourism promotions that measure success by Internet clicks and Facebook likes, rather that the bottom line of cash spent on holiday bookings.

The Visit Year propagandists tell us this is the year to travel to Laos without a single tangible benefit explained.

When the Lao government launched its Visit Year 2018, last October, the travel trade expected a few concessions to encourage travel. There was talk of visa-free travel to boost visits from emerging markets in order to reverse a negative trend in tourist arrivals.

Some experts said border checkpoints fees and the charges for overtime might be reduced, or deferred for the duration of the special year.  There was talk of extending the opening hours of specific border checkpoints with neighbouring Thailand.  It turned out to be talk with no substance, which is a pity for the country’s tourism operators who desperately need to deliver incentives to encourage travel.

Visit Laos Year 2018 will feature 18 main tourism activities scheduled to take place nationwide, Deputy Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone told the press invited to Vientiane for the November official launch.

The challenge now  is to identify Visit Year specific events in the list of 18 activities. Not a single definitive activity linked to the Visit Year campaign has been identified. Instead, the government  totted up popular annual festivals under the banner of a so-called special year.

During an ITB Asia cocktail event to introduce Visit Laos Year to international travel buyers, last October, there was no calendar of events either in print or online.  The  media asked for it and was told it was “coming soon.”

Lao PDR has organised Visit Laos Years during its fiscal 1999-2000 (Oct to Sep) and again in 2011-2012.

A key element of any Visit Year should be signature events specifically created for the promotion, price incentives, hotel and tour offers and concessions on park or museum entry fees to improve length of stay.

Luang Prabang did issue its own Visit Year calendar, 9 December, packed with the standard issue of annual festivals, boat races, a half-marathon a film festival, temple fairs and just one event that had the tagline “Official Celebration of Visit Laos Year during April’s traditional New Year festivities”.

In the absence of  Visit Year specific events, the government did suggest the country would demonstrate it is a car tourism friendly destination, easy on regulations and obviously targeting the two key markets, neighbouring Thailand and China.

It is possible that some token caravans will tour destinations in northern provinces and southern Laos and a few media trips will be organised. These two activities are pursued annually in cooperation with neighbouring countries under the “two countries, one destination” initiative.

Local media said the budget for the Visit Year stands at Kip23 billion (around USD2.8 million). Despite that assurance, the minister of information, culture and tourism was quoted saying during the official launch, last month at the annual That Luang Festival in Vientiane, “we are currently considering the budget.”

Laos budgets on a fiscal year, October 1 to September 30. If the Visit Lao Year budget was still under consideration in November it would not be relevant until 1 October 2018.

Predictably, the list of trade shows that the government and private sector will attend in 2018 are identical to the 2017 line-up.  They include the ASEAN Tourism Forum hosted by Chiang Mai in January 2018, ITB Berlin in Germany , SMT-World Tourism Exhibition  in Paris, France, the Lao Festival in Tokyo, Japan, the International Travel Expo Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, ITB Asia and World Travel Market in London, next November.

Laos needs an aggressive campaign and the support of a Visit Year that offers tangible benefits for travellers. That could involve visa-free travel, price concessions on holiday packages, competitions and deals with major credit card such as Visa and Mastercard.

The country needs something drastic to reverse a negative trend in tourist arrivals. International tourist arrivals in 2016 dropped 10% to 4.23 million compared to 2015.

There is talk of reaching 4.9 million tourists arrivals this year, but arrivals declined during the first half of 2017 by 9.7% according to KPL (Lao National News)

During the first three months of 2017, the decline was a substantial 12% down from 1.24 million year-on-year to 1.11 million.

Despite its lack of a “wow” factor tourism officials optimistically believe foreign tourist arrivals during Visit Laos Year 2018, will hit 5.2 million and earn USD900 million. By 2025, they predict arrivals will top 7.5 million.

Observers and so-called travel influencers have called for a dramatic easing of visa regulations; a year of visa free travel. That might do the trick, but as the clock ticks, 2017, is closing with no signs of an announcement that would give the Visit Laos Year teeth.