Josh Lew | October 21, 2015 3:18 PM ET
Could We Lose Asia’s Final Frontier?
Laos has been off the tourist trail for several decades, but regional and overseas tourists are now starting to discover it. This has inspired the country’s leadership to start planning for a future as a major tourist destination.
A majority of the visitors during the the country’s recent tourism boom are not from overseas. They hail from neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam. It’s easy to get to Laos from these places, and many people take advantage of cheap flights and even cheaper bus tickets to come for a quick shopping or sightseeing trip. Regional travelers also come to scout business and investment opportunities.
Overseas visitors have been discovering Laos as well. The river town of Vieng Vang has become something of a party stop on Southeast Asia’s backpacker circuit. The temples, French-style cafes and lack of crowds have drawn tourists to Vientiane and the temple city of Luang Prabang. Compared to neighboring Thailand, the number of arrivals is pretty modest (about four million last year). However, for Laos, the statistics show major growth.
Because of this increase in the number of arrivals, the country’s airports need to be upgraded. Actually, the Laotian Transport Minister, Bounchanh Sinthavong, has stated that the airports should be replaced altogether. The country’s main hub (and the only real option for most fliers), Vientiane’s Wattay International, will be able to handle about three million passengers per year once planned upgrades are completed.
Unfortunately, there is no room to expand beyond that; thus the need for a totally new airport. Sinthavong hopes to start work on a new hub outside of Vientiane in about 10 years and to have it be fully operational within 15 years.
The current airport in Luang Prabang, a popular destination that is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, will reach capacity within the next decade. The provincial towns of Pakse, an eco-tourism hub for Southern Laos, and Savannakhet, the country’s second largest population center, need airport upgrades if they are to become more-prominent tourist destinations. The government has said that these three cities are slated for airport upgrades, but no timeline was given for the projects.
More tourism will be good for the country's economy. It has already become one of the most important industries in Laos. At the same time, there are bound to be quite a few disappointed travel purists. Laos is an off-the-beaten-path destination, not unlike what Vietnam and Cambodia were 10 or 15 years ago. In Southeast Asia, this is the final frontier for backpackers. It remains to be seen how much the planned infrastructure upgrades will change that, but some people will surely see it as a negative that their “secret” destination has been discovered.
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