China rail through Laos underway

CHIANG MAI, 26 January 2018: China’s high-speed rail that will link Kunming in Yunnan province with the Lao PDR capital, Vientiane, will open in 2022.

Commenting on construction progress, Lao PDR’s Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism deputy director general, Bounlap Douangphoumy, told an ATF media briefing that passenger trains on the electrified line would stop at Luang Prabang the country’s most popular tourist destination.

The line covers a distance of more than 400 km with eight stations within the country. Eventually it will merge with a high-speed rail line running south through Thailand to Bangkok and the eastern seaboard port of Laem Chabang.

Work is already underway on 76 tunnels and  154 bridges  passing through mountainous terrain in northern Laos.

Once the USD6.8 billion project is completed, passenger trains will travel at speeds of up to 160 kph, significantly cutting travel times for Chinese tour operators from a full day to just a few hours.

However, the tourism director reaffirmed there were no plans to offer Chinese travellers visa-free or visa-on-arrival travel to ease the flow of travel at the border.

“If we did, we would simply not be able to cope with the flood of Chinese tourists,” said Bounlap. “There would be a flood tide of tourists and already we are finding it difficult to handle overland travellers who pass the border in private cars from China.

The border checkpoint with China, on a highway 40 km north of Luang Namtha, is often congested with long queues of cars waiting to cross to Laos.

“It’s a major problem processing car traffic and trains packed with tourists from Yunnan province will add an additional workload for immigration officials.”

But he insisted there would be no visa concessions for Chinese, claiming even when the fast trains are operating from Kunming to Luang Prabang. Passengers will still need to apply for visas at Lao PDR embassies or consulates.

A study on the impact of the high-speed rail line is being undertaken to understand more clearly the impact on tourism and communities close to the track.

Last year, travel arrivals declined in Laos by around 10% mainly due to a drop in Thai visits. The decline was attributed to a reluctance to book holidays during the official mourning for the late Thai king that extended for a year from October 2016 to October 2017.

2018 should record recovery with officials estimating the country could welcome as many as 5 million visitors, led by travellers from Thailand, Vietnam, Korea and China.