Laos is on the verge of restarting its inbound travel sector, as Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith late last month instructed the transport and tourism ministries to reopen services in each locality under “new normal conditions”.
Although details of the directive are scant and no official date has been set, hoteliers are expecting a “massive flow of tourists” when borders reopen, said Mathieu Thaeron, general manager of Vang Vieng’s Riverside Boutique Resort.
“Laos will benefit from its good performance during the global crisis — there have only been seven Covid-related deaths in 20 months — and should therefore be one of the privileged destinations for those wishing to travel safely,” he said.
The future is now looking brighter as the capital, Vientiane, has recorded no community transmissions for almost two weeks, while the nation’s vaccine rollout has been progressing steadily, with 11.6% of the population fully vaccinated as of 4 August. Laos is targeting 50% of its population of 7.4 million for complete vaccination by the end of the year.
Vientiane-based RDK Group’s senior partner, Jason Rolan, recently told The South East Asia Travel Show, "Among ASEAN nations we’re still doing the best [in vaccination rollout], after Singapore and Brunei, in terms of cases and deaths. Just as long as we can keep up vaccinations and prevent an outbreak of the Delta variant.”
Industry stakeholders and travellers are also buoyed by the imminent opening of a new rail link with China, which is expected to entice more international tourists to the country. A 414km link between the Lao special economic zone of Boten on the China-Laos border and Vientiane is scheduled for the recently told The South East Asia Travel Showend of this year.
Rolan said the train’s maiden voyage is set for 2 December, Lao National Day, though whether passenger services will be available on this date is as yet unclear. “Lao people are fairly excited about this development and the new travel opportunities that will open up,” he said.
Similarly, Rosewood Luang Prabang’s managing director, Guillermo Varela, believes the train will have a significant impact on attracting travellers from China’s southern regions. “It will bring new opportunities to create multi-destination journeys for those travelling the Mekong region,” he said.
The rail link follows another major transport project, the China-Laos expressway, which connected Vientiane with Vang Vieng, north of the capital, in December last year.
The expressway has helped promote self-drive travel in the country, Rolan added, noting that there has been a “huge surge in weekend trips”, as the journey which used to take three to four hours can now be made in an hour.
Other elements driving Laos’ strong position for the reopening of tourism in the region, Thaeron explained, include its tourism ministry and other major stakeholders supporting sustainable development, alongside flourishing new hospitality schools.
To be even better prepared for the reopening of inbound travel, Rolan believes Laos needs more people to be vaccinated, and for the country to be marketed again “in a proactive fashion”.
The landlocked nation also needs to develop more air connections with large regional cities, he added, such as Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, and Beijing, “whose citizens would be interested in experiencing the slower pace of life we have to offer”.
General manager of Luang Prabang’s Amantaka, Tom Rutherford, agrees. “We believe that the seductively slow pace of Laos and our ability to offer guests a calm and secure sanctuary within the country will appeal to the new way of travelling in a Covid-changed world.”