By Somsack Pongkhao
Travel agents in Laos are experiencing a slump in bookings in the wake of increased competition for air flights and accommodation from online booking sites.
One tour agent in Vientiane who asked not to be named said that his customer numbers had fallen by 20 per cent in 2015 compared to the previous year.
He said many more tourists, particularly young people, preferred to make their own travel arrangements by using online booking sites such as www.agoda.com and www.booking.com.
However, older people still frequently choose to travel as part of a tour group which arranges various services including guides.
Vice President of the Lao Association of Travel Agents, Saleum Khamphengvong, told Vientiane Times that most travel agents have experienced a drop in customer numbers.
“Some companies have reported a decline of 6 to 10 per cent or even 20 per cent,” Mr Saleum said.
The world is more connected now that online communication has become part of people's daily life. Booking online is commonplace and more and more people are using these services when arranging holidays and business travel.
The prevalence of online booking has pushed some travel agents into bankruptcy while others are operating clandestinely to avoid paying taxes.
Tourists who regularly visit Laos say that using a tour operator is 1 to 20 per cent more expensive than travelling independently.
Over 4 million foreign nationals visited Laos in 2015, generating income of about US$670 million.
About half of this number chose to travel with a tour operator. There are now 340 travel agents providing services for foreign nationals visiting Laos, but only 60 are members of the Lao Association of Travel Agents.
Saleum said the onset of the Asean Community also posed challenges for Lao tour companies because tour operators in other countries can bring their own customers and tour guides into Laos.
For instance , buses from neighbouring countries already bring tourists to Laos.
“We will try to encourage tour agents in Laos to become members of our association so that we can help one another in dealing with the challenges we face,” Saleum said.
Laos has become a top destination for international visitors due to its intriguing tourist attractions including the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites - the ancient city of Luang Prabang and the pre-Angkor Vat Phou temple complex.
Laos is now conveniently connected to many other cities by air and land transport which makes it easy for people to visit the country.
About 70 per cent of tourists to Laos come from within the region, mostly Thailand, while the other 30 per cent come from Europe, America, Japan and Australia.
The number of hotels, guesthouses and resorts across the country has jumped from 1,926 five years ago to 2,426 at a recent count.