By Vientiane Times/ANN
The switch in focus to domestic tourists is in response to the severe and unprecedented blow to the tourism industry, especially through the absence of foreign visitors, following the coronavirus pandemic.
Lockdowns imposed by many countries earlier this year forced tour groups to cancel bookings, resulting in losses of at least US$20 million to the tourism industry, according to the province’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Luang Prabang province is now spending 1.7 billion kip to build new and upgrade existing facilities at Phousy Hill – a popular viewpoint in the provincial capital where people gather to admire the sunset and sunrise, the Director of the province’s Information, Culture and Tourism Department, Dr Soudaphone Khomthavong, told reporters last week.
Facilities are also being improved at Kuang Xi waterfall, another tourist hotspot in the northern province.
The building of new facilities is aimed at further boosting the popularity of two of the town’s main tourist attractions.
“We are creating five-star tourist destinations that will have amenities such as information centres and climbing paths for disabled people,” Dr Soudaphone said. The town’s plans to make its most popular sites more visitor-friendly were revealed to a group of over 10 reporters taking part in the recent ‘Fam Trip for Lao Media and International Bloggers in the Lao PDR’, sponsored by the Tourism Infrastructure for Inclusive Growth Project II.
Local authorities, in collaboration with tour and hospitality business operators, have been actively promoting domestic tourism amid the absence of foreign visitors, Dr Soudaphone said. Many operators have reduced the cost of their package tours and room rates to about one-third of the normal price, cutting the cost by 70 percent to make travel affordable for ordinary Lao people, President of the province’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mr Bounthieng Soulivan, said.
The province is also organising a cycling tour, which will take place on November 14 in Chomphet district to promote environmentally-friendly tourism. In view of the pandemic, the organisers have scaled down the size of the event, which is in its third year. This time only 200 cyclists will take part instead of more than 1,000 previously, Dr Soudaphone said.
Mr Bounthieng said businesses and the province’s Information, Culture and Tourism Department also plan to organise a caravan of vehicles to travel to Vientiane next month, as a further way to promote travel within the country.
He said businesses had made a slight recovery as more and more Lao people were making trips. But he admitted that small numbers of Lao tourists with limited purchasing power could not fully offset the absence of foreign clients.
“But it’s better than having no clients at all,” he said, referring to the lockdown period.
My Dream Boutique Resort and Spa currently has about 20 percent of its rooms reserved by local travellers, up from zero bookings during the lockdown, but a decrease of an average 80 percent occupancy prior to the pandemic.
The resort, which previously targeted foreign clients, has cut its nightly room rate from US$150 to US$30-40 to suit the pockets of Lao clients, according to its director Somnuek Bounsa. Faced with fewer customers, many business operators say they have had to cut the number of their employees to about 30 percent of the previous workforce, with staff working on alternate days.
So far this year, Luang Prabang province has received about 420,000 tourists, a drop of 64 percent compared to the target for 2020. Last year, the province recorded more than 860,000 visitors, according to Dr Soudaphone.
The slump in visitor numbers has affected large businesses and small merchants alike.
A woman selling antique-like items, hats, hand-made scarves, hand-made clothing, and lamps in the town’s night market said business was so bad that on some days she had no sales. In pre-Covid-19 days she earned more than US$100 or even US$200 a day.
“Many people here are reliant on tourists for their income. Many of us are now in debt,” she added.
The province has registered 228 historical, cultural and natural attractions, of which 111 are open to visitors.