Lasting Laos: Reopening the Country to Sustainable Tourism

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An eco-friendly Lao restaurant ready to receive diners.

The “Lasting Laos” campaign and the SUSTOUR Laos Project are working with local businesses to encourage sustainable tourism and help the Lao economy recover from the financial setbacks of the Covid pandemic. 

Today’s travelers look for more than just comfort and value: many now seek to improve their carbon footprints by making more sustainable travel, lodging, and dining choices. Laos – home to three UNESCO world heritage sites as well as some of the most unspoiled nature in Southeast Asia, is a small but geographically diverse country, with a variety of locations and attractions for travelers, from the cities to ancient cultural sites to tranquil waterfalls. International tourism that was down almost 100% is now reopening.

Somneuk Chanthaphanith, the owner of Indigo Fabric Laos from Luang Prabang Province is one of many entrepreneurs affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. He has lost revenue as most of his main customers are international tourists.

Somneuk joined the “Lasting Laos” campaign and was given the opportunity to sell his products at the “Lasting Laos” booth at the Luang Prabang Night Market every Saturday, free of charge. The booth aims to help local businesses expand their distribution channels and as a result, he and other participants are able to increase their incomes.

A Lao artisan works on a piece of weaving.

The “Lasting Laos” campaign is implemented by the SUSTOUR Laos Project, funded by the European Union and implemented by Plan International Laos is helping local businesses to overcome these difficult times. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a profound toll on the tourism industry globally, and particularly in Laos. SUSTOUR has helped Lao suppliers to see that the “downtime” of the pandemic and the closure of borders can bring fruitful opportunities for businesses to prepare for the future. While international tourism was impossible since 2020, SUSTOUR worked with the Lao Visit Lao program to promote domestic tourism through the “Lao Visit Lao” program.

“This project is very timely as Laos prepares for reopening to tourism in the coming months”, said EU Ambassador, Ina Marčiulionytė at the opening of the project. And indeed now that the international tourism industry begins to return, participants of SUSTOUR will be ready to meet new customers with a fresh and sustainable image.

“Laos is rich in its natural environment. We have more than twenty national parks, and a lot of nature is still untouched,” says Inthy Deuansavanh, a hotel and restaurant owner who runs Green Discovery Laos. “The way to keep tourism in Laos sustainable is to keep it a niche, high-end, expensive product – that’s our strength because we can’t compete on price with places like China or Thailand.”

Sustainable Lao gifts available in a store.

The SUSTOUR program is dedicated to empowering businesses to improve the sustainability of their tourism, hospitality, and handicraft in three Lao provinces: Luang Prabang, Vientiane Province, and Vientiane Capital. Workshops in the Lao language allow space for participants to learn sustainable practices which benefit the earth while simultaneously attracting eco-conscious customers from both within Laos and from abroad. The Lasting Laos certificate provides benchmarks and checklists of sustainability requirements which are based on the International Travelife certificate. Waste management is a priority in this certificate program, as are pollution reduction and energy consumption reduction.

Traditional Lao food served in sustainable wares.

The Lasting Laos campaign on Facebook and other social media contributes to create local word-of-mouth promotion which encourages more businesses to enroll in the program for themselves and the changes which businesses make in their practices as a result of meeting certification criteria are often a “win-win” situation for both the environment and for the businesses themselves: reducing energy costs, for example.

“Travelife really helped us have clear sustainability goals and a framework to achieve them,” says Alexandra Michat, Director Of Sustainability at EXO Travel. Workshops are tailor-made, flexible, and adaptable methods for achieving sustainability that are hugely different for a bar, a hotel, or a silk weaver. While Lao air travel providers may be unable to turn to plastic alternatives due to the cost and weight of alternatives, minivan and boat services are able to phase out single-use plastics. Also, the venue is important, suppliers in the food and beverage industry receive coaching in the ideal ambiance of a cuisine, and on food packaging that attracts customers the most. For handicraft suppliers, coaching is extended to help retailers understand the requirements of legal and fair trade. Handicraft suppliers are also encouraged to embrace and express the cultural significance of their goods, which helps with sales.

A potter creates a handicraft.

SUSTOUR’s Workshops are held in the destinations which need them most. Luang Prabang UNESCO World Heritage site, and Laos’ cultural capital, hosts the cultural excursions workshop, but no workshops are held in the popular tourist destination of Vang Vieng because Travelife certification is already popular and widely understood there.

For many Lao businesses, educating employees on sustainable best practices was a dream made unattainable by budget constraints.  This is why incentives encouraging suppliers’ participation in these workshops include waived registration fees, supportive training and coaching for a full year, community service through sustainability, and connecting to other businesses. While meeting sustainability goals is the main focus of the program, the year of provided coaching and training often go beyond those criteria in order to provide guidance that supports the success of businesses more generally.   

For some, SUSTOUR workshops will be a gateway to world-class opportunities in hospitality. In September of 2022, SUSTOUR will invite successful participants to attend a professional travel ad hospitality conference in Singapore. By covering the travel and registration costs of those successful business, SUSTOUR empowers them to learn more cutting-edge practices from their peers abroad. When these professionals return home to Laos, their success will serve as promotion for the SUSTOUR program itself, so that it may continue to grow, aiding both Laos’ economy and the environment as a whole.