Be careful what you wish for

Laos might see more Chinese visitors than it can handle

by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt FRGS FRAS

The Visit China-Laos Year 2019 has been hailed by officials from both countries as a big success. 805,000 Chinese arrivals were registered for 2018, for this year for the first time more than one million Mainland Chinese might cross the border into Laos, more than 20% of all arrivals and about double the arrival number for 2016.

Vientiane and Luang Prabang, but also the Vangvieng district of Vientiane Province, and the Luang Namtha at the border have all improved the quality of their services, lowered prices and fees, added Chinese dishes to their restaurant menus and installed signs written in Chinese at popular tourist sites.

Last week, China’s top political advisor Wang Yang paid an official visit to Laos. Wang, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) visited the key project of the China-Laos Economic Corridor, the China-Laos railway. As part of a major Belt and Road Initiative, this railway is supposed to become a part of a connection between Kunming in Yunnan/China and Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

The Laos-China Railway Company, which is building and will operate the link, is 30 percent owned by Laos’s state railway company and 70 percent by Chinese state-owned companies. The railway, which comprises 76 tunnels with a total length of almost 200 km, is 80% ready and set to open in 2021. It is supposed to facilitate Laos’s ability to transport goods around the region faster and much cheaper than today. There are also images of Highspeed-trains going down the line, but the transport of goods will be more important than the transport of people.

The hosts of Wang repeated the willingness of Laos to provide more convenience to welcome investment from Chinese enterprises and more Chinese tourists. In a bid to attract more Chinese visitors, the Lao government recently reduced the tourist visa fee for Chinese nationals from 20 USD to 10 USD. Another reason to travel to Laos for Chinese is the Chinese-owned Kings Romans Hotel, sitting along the Mekong River at the border triangle of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. Inside the Casino resort, only Chinese currency is used and even the clocks show Beijing Standard Time.

However, some are anxious that the country, which has neither beach resorts, stunning ruins such as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Myanmar’s Bagan temple complex, nor sophisticated infrastructure and services like Thailand and Vietnam, could be flooded by low-end market visitors from Mainland China using the new train link and being catered to by new Chinese-invested shops and restaurants. They are feared to destroy the charm of places like Luang Prabang, which rests in the Lao people and their laid-back nature.

Development agencies have long advised the Laotian government to promote eco-tourism and sustainable-culture-related tourism as viable niches for the country in the regional travel market. So it will remain to be seen if Laos can avoid – unlike many neighbours in the region – the development of Chinese cheap overtourism.

All best wishes for a peaceful and profitable week from Prof. Dr. Arlt and the COTRI WEEKLY team!