Last updated: 03:00 AM ET, Fri November 13 2015

Rivers Hold The Key To Tourism Growth In Laos

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | November 13, 2015

Rivers Hold The Key To Tourism Growth In Laos

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Laos is certainly a country on the rise. Long considered an also-ran in the race for tourism supremacy in Mainland Southeast Asia, the landlocked country has big plans for development. Expanded airports are in the works, the border region near China is being built up and adventure tour companies are growing their menu of offerings. All that said, the tourism industry is still in its infancy here.  

A river country

Rivers have always been important in Laos. Traditionally, the waterways were used for fishing and transportation through the roadless backcountry. Even to this day, people live a subsistence lifestyle along the banks of the Mekong, fishing for their protein and using the nutrient-rich soil on the riverbanks to grow crops. 

This kind of quaint, quiet, back-to-nature lifestyle is what makes Laos attractive to tourists who are tired of the well-trod trails of Thailand and Vietnam. The Mekong is hugely important to modern Laos too. It is not large-scale fishing or even transportation at the heart of the new water-based economy — it is hydroelectricity. 

Hydro, powering the economy

Laos has built a number of hydroelectric dams along its rivers. The largest are in the Mekong. There have been concerns raised about the environmental impact of these dams, but for Laos, one of the region’s poorest nations, they are an economic boon. With its sparse population, Laos can’t use all the power generated by its dams. It sells the leftovers downstream to energy-hungry Thailand and its other neighbors. 

Even subsistence farmers have cashed in on the dams. Though they had to relocate because of the project, many locals ended up getting construction jobs building the dams, and some have ongoing employment at the new hydro plants. 

A growing list of river travel options

More and more tourists have started to venture to slow-paced Vientiane and historic Luang Prabang. These places offer a relaxed alternative to the more-crowded tourism scenes in Siem Reap, Cambodia and Chiang Mai, Thailand. However, beyond these sleepy cities, and a few backpacker havens like Vang Vieng, Laos still does not have much going on as far as tourism. 

The quickest way to get more tourists into Laos is to offer them trips on the country’s waterways. A few companies have started doing just that. Pandaw, which has been offering cruises in Southeast Asia since the 1990s, recently added a 10-cabin river cruiser called the RV Laos Pandaw to its fleet. It has created new itineraries that focus on Laos or include the country on regional cruises through Thailand, Myanmar and China. 

An easy introduction  

Other similar luxury river boat companies have also been expanding their offerings. One of the original Mekong cruisers, the Mekong Sun, regularly offers trips between Thailand and Vientiane. This kind of journey does several things. First of all, it gives people a chance to make a specific focus for their trip. They aren’t just going to see one or two sights (the Plain of Jars or the daily alms collection by Luang Prabang’s monks), they are cruising the river with a set itinerary.

Second, cruises put Laos on the map for people who are taking a multi-country cruise. These trips also act as a non-threatening introduction to under-explored countries like Laos (to some extent, its neighbors, like Myanmar, fit into this category as well). 

Like any landlocked country, rivers are important to Laos. Hydroelectricity is giving the country a much-needed economic boost, but cruising could be the answer to help introduce the country to well-heeled tourists and to people who would not otherwise come. 

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