Laos: Visit Year to the rescue?

VIENTIANE, 18 January 2018: Faced with declines in tourist arrivals since a peak in 2015, Lao’s tourism officials are counting on Visit Lao Year 2018, to give the country’s tourism a lift.

The country’s Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism will field a strong delegation at the ASEAN Tourism Forum, next week, with a clear message to the 240 international buyers to send more tourists.

The delegation of more than 20 officials will focus on the Visit Year promotion that was launched at ITB Asia last October in Singapore.

But the 2018 calendar is thin on events that are Visit Year specific, although tourism officials say they are counting on traditional annual festivals to present added value for visitors and organisers to fill out festival content.

Fortunately for Laos, 41% of the 240 buyers attending ATF represent markets in Europe a region that could deliver quality tourists during 2018 to boost foreign exchange earnings.

Laos attracted just 680,000 European tourists in 2016 compared with 3.55 million from Asia, a performance dominated by the almost 2 million Thai travellers.

The latest Lao government data showed tourist arrivals declined in all markets, except China, during January to September, 2017.

The first nine months of 2017 saw visits drop 9.1% to just over 2.88 million trips compared to the same period in 2016.

Chinese were the only nationality that clocked an increase, according to the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism data. More than 429,000 Chinese visited Laos, up 5% compared with the first nine months of 2016.

As for the rest of the supply market the tale was one of grief.

Lao authorities blame it  on the global economic slowdown and uncertain travel markets in Europe where discretionary spend declined due to a rising consumer price index. Wages remained largely unchanged leaving European traveller with less to spend on long-haul travel.

In addition, the cost of transport, hotels and even dining out increased in Laos.

Tourism to Laos registered its first major decline in 2016, when arrivals closed at 4,239,047, a decline of 12% when compared with the all-time high of 4,684,429 in 2015.

Over the first nine months of 2017, visits from the Asia-Pacific region and ASEAN fell by 7% to around 2.7 million.

Visits from two other major regions — Europe and the United States — fell by 34 and 35% to 113,982 and 43,224.

Estimates for 2017, suggest arrivals will fall by 11.2% which is almost identical to the drop in 2016 .

So will Visit Laos Year turn out to be the saviour?  Next week, tourism officials will be able to promote the year to international media and the 240 international buyers representing global tour markets. But how many of them are in a position to push new business during the visit year? Probably not many as the contracting window at ATF focuses on 2019.

Despite hopes that the European market will come good for Laos, the market reality suggests the solution lies with a boost in short-haul from ASEAN markets and China.

Laos has an ambitious plan to lift its tourist arrivals from around 4 million to 5.5 million in 2019, 5.88 million in 2020 and 7.51 million by 2025.

One positive marker could be the China-Laos high-speed rail line that should open by 2022 at the latest. Linking Kunming the capital of Yunnan province in China with Vientiane, the Lao capital, the line will have nine stations with one of them located on the doorstep of the World Heritage town of Luang Prabang.

Capable of travelling at speeds of 160 kph, it will cut overland travel times from China and possibly open the tourism floodgate for destinations in North Laos.

That could be the turning point that will see Laos come considerably closer to reaching a 7.5 million target by 2025.