Last updated: 04:00 PM ET, Mon November 23 2015

Plain of Jars Seeking UNESCO World Heritage Site Status

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | November 23, 2015

Plain of Jars Seeking UNESCO World Heritage Site Status

The Plain of Jars is one of the most well-known sites in Laos. There is a lot of mystery surrounding the large stone receptacles, 2,000 of which sit in the valleys of Central Laos. No one is quite certain who made them or what their original purpose was. However, they have been dated back to the same era as the civilizations of Ancient Greece and Imperial China. 

Laos already has two attractions that are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the city of Luang Prabang and the Hindu temple complex of Vat Phou. Travelers who are familiar with Mainland Southeast Asia have probably heard of, or maybe even visited, Luang Prabang. Vat Phou is often completely overshadowed by the temple complexes in neighboring countries: Angkor Wat and Bagan. Despite not having World Heritage Site status, the Plain of Jars is as well-known as the UNESCO sites of Laos, if not more so. 

Does being listed as a World Heritage Site matter for tourism? 

There is a plan, which has been in the works for quite a while, to apply for World Heritage status for the Plain. If all goes well, the application will be submitted to UNESCO early next year. 

Some destinations advertise their UNESCO World Heritage status. On one hand, these places have passed through an application process, and UNESCO has deemed them "culturally or physically significant." At the same time, how many people will actually decide to come to an attraction solely based on its inclusion in the World Heritage Site list? 

Not a silver bullet for tourism success

Perhaps sites will get a bit of free advertising when they make onto the list. Headliners like the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu are UNESCO sites, but a majority of their peers remain pretty obscure. How many travelers other than history buffs are familiar with the historic town Sucre in Bolivia or Paraguay’s La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná mission? 

There is one thing that makes applying for World Heritage Site status more than some sort of national vanity project: money. Under some conditions, listed sites can apply for funding from a special World Heritage Fund. Private institutions can also offer financial help to maintain or upgrade the site. 

The Plain of Jars is being developed for tourism. The area was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War, and a lot of unexploded ordinance remains to this day. Routes have been cleared through the valleys where the stone structures sit, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Even now, 40-45 years after the conflict ended, people still die from hitting or picking up unexploded shells. Ordinance disposal projects are ongoing, but perhaps a bit more funding could help the process move along more quickly. 

Already growing as a tourist attraction

Things are already developing in the region around the Plain of Jars. The provincial city of Phonsavanh has developed into a tourism hub with a high number of guesthouses, restaurants and tour guide offices. There is even a UXO center that supplies information about unexploded ordinances.      

Sites like the Plain of Jars are becoming more accessible. Getting UNESCO World Heritage Site status could help with advertising and maybe even development funding, but it won’t bring hordes of travelers. 

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