CHIANG RAI, 2 May 2019: Not that anyone noticed, but we have just completed the first quarter of Visit Laos-China Year, which I assume rolls out the red carpet to welcome more Chinese tourists.
According to the Vientiane Times, the special year follows on from Visit Laos Year 2018, which was an abject failure no matter how you look at it.
For starters, hotels in Vientiane that should have prospered during the special year called it one of the worst on record when they totted up REVPAR and the average daily rate that slumped well below previous years.
So Visit Laos-China Year 2019 is more about inspiring Chinese travellers to “experience the nature, culture, history and hospitality of Laos, the jewel of the Mekong,” or so the Vientiane Times tells us.
Thankfully, the country official English news service gently floated back to earth and reminded us in the next paragraph that the riverside town of Vang Vieng is sinking under a mountain of garbage.
Vang Vieng is a popular riverside destination that attracts budget travellers heading for Luang Prabang. A kind of half-way house, at around 200 km north of the Laos capital, the attractive town is best known for its fast flowing river and the backdrop of craggy mountain ridges. Unfortunately, over the years, it has also gained a reputation as a seedy overdeveloped tourist town. Now add to that distinction the rubbish tourism produces dumped on its streets and spilling over into the clear waters of the Nam Song River.
Just what can you expect when towns and villages are forced to get by without a proper garbage collection service. Residents and small hotel operators throw it over the garden fence or they burn it out of sight of the guests. But even that simple solution fails to deal with the tons of plastic and food waste tourists leave behind after an overnight stay. Where does the rubbish from tourism end up?
Most of it is destined for shallow landfill or it is burned on the side of roads out of sight of the tinsel township. There is very little effort to recycle garbage in Vang Vieng. The easy and cheap way out is to burn it.
“Walk south along the Xong River in Vang Vieng and you will be horrified by the amount of garbage discarded by people enjoying various activities on the river,” says the Vientiane Times.
It warns that if nothing is done about the plastic waste and other pollutants that float downstream, Vang Vieng will be destroyed by its popularity along with the communities that are saddled with the plastic that floats downstream.
A reality check shows Vang Vieng authorities are happy to reap the benefits of tourism but are slow to redirect some of the wealth to improve utility services for the community and install sustainable solutions to deal with garbage. One solution would be to ban the use of plastic bottles, straws and wrappings in Vang Vieng and take life back to the “good old days” when natural wrappings or materials that can be recycled easily were used to package food and drinks.
The answer is not to prohibit people from enjoying Vang Vieng’s riverside as that is probably the main reason why visitors stop there in the first place, but rather accelerate measures to collect garbage and instil a culture of discarding garbage in colour-coded bins to encourage a sorting process.
At the same time, tourist destinations need to develop modern recycling processes that serve as a model for nearby villages to emulate. Right now, Vang Vieng is an example of bad practices.
Let’s face it the problem could be managed. It is not that Vang Vieng is run off its feet trying to serve a massive surge of visitors. Last year, according to the Vientiane Times, the town welcomed just 157,000 visitors, compared with 4.1 visitors to the entire country.
That’s an average of 436 visitors a day. Finding a way to eliminate the bottles of waters they buy would be a good starting point. Then introduce banana leaves and bamboo for food packaging and who knows how much plastic would disappear from Vang Vieng’s landfill.