With Laos trending as a travel destination over the past several months and China reopening its borders on Sunday, is the country prepared for an influx of tourists or has it been caught unawares?
Chinese tourists made up twenty percent of the five million international visitors that came to Laos in 2019. Last year, after Laos reopened its borders in May, over a million foreign tourists arrived, but Chinese tourists have been missing from the equation owing to the country’s strict zero-covid policy.
However, China has recently relaxed measures, announcing that it is easing its border restrictions and will soon allow outbound travel for its citizens. And while many countries have hastily rolled out new policies in fear of an explosion of Covid cases, the return of Chinese visitors is largely viewed positively by Southeast Asian nations that rely on tourism for economic growth.
But is Laos prepared to handle a huge volume of tourists from China and other parts of the world?
Anticipating the news of China reopening its borders in 2023, Mr. Benny Kong, founder of local travel agency, Discover Laos Today, has already started hiring staff who either speak fluent Chinese or are learning the language.
“It is an important skill to have for anyone working in the tourism industry so that they could guide Chinese clients who make up a large portion of international visitors to Laos,” he says.
But it is not just the lack of Chinese-speaking travel agents that could cause headaches for Laos – the country has been plunged into an unprecedented labor crisis. Restaurants and hotels have had difficulty hiring and retaining staff, with some new businesses saying they have been unable to open at all.
Lengthy closures during the pandemic drove many from the tourism industry to other sectors, while the bulk of unskilled workers in Laos has been lured away to higher-paying jobs in Thailand and South Korea.
Keovisouk Dalasane, the founder of the country’s first job portal, 108jobs, has observed businesses in the hospitality industry are still recovering from the losses they incurred during the pandemic.
“In most cases, restaurants or hotels might not have the opportunity of hiring back the same people that worked with them earlier. This is why they need to make a fresh investment in human capital and human resources and spend time and effort to train their new staff so that they are able to provide a certain level of service.”
“The monetary incentive should also be there for people to see the benefit of staying back and working in their own country,” he says, adding that it might take the service industry at least two more quarters to be able to run at full capacity once again.
And while foreign experts have historically been brought in to fill the gaps, capacity building has not happened as quickly as some would like.
Ms. Duangmala Phommavong, Managing Director of EXO Travel Laos, feels that the country is not completely ready for the arrival of Chinese tourists. She points out that Laos requires up to 200,000 tourism workers per year, but colleges offering tourism-related courses can only accommodate up to 500 candidates annually.
“I would say we are about 50 percent ready because we don’t have enough people to service an influx of Chinese visitors,” she adds.
Many of the tourists arriving in Laos have been attracted by the new Laos-China Railway, with the high-speed train likely to be one of the biggest attractions for Chinese tourists as well, especially since the train travels right up to the border town of Boten. At the moment, there has been no update on whether or not the train will facilitate cross-border travel, or if passenger travel will continue to terminate at Boten.
Meanwhile, a newly-launched ticketing application is not yet operational, leaving travelers to line up in long queues or jump through several hoops to secure a last-minute ticket. Travel agents are still wary of recommending the train to their customers.
“We are unable to market the train service to our customers because they want to be able to guarantee their travel plans in advance, and we cannot commit to getting train tickets confirmed until the railway company allows us to book in advance,” notes Bennyy Kong.
The LCR Ticket app, which was launched with great fanfare amid the first anniversary of the Laos-China Railway, is available for download via the Lao Google Play or App Store, however, users in countries outside Laos have had trouble accessing the app.
Tourism expert, Jason Rolan, notes that “China has a very good app for booking railway tickets within the country and Chinese tourists, like all other travelers, would like to have confirmed tickets in hand before they make a trip to Laos.”
And while hospitals in China are filling up with Covid patients, Laos is still hopeful about the arrival of Chinese tourists as much of the population in Laos has received both doses of their vaccines, along with booster shots.
“The tourists from China who will be arriving will have had two shots of Sinovac vaccine,” says Jason, who feels that rushing in new measures as Thailand has done will be more of a hindrance than a help.
Other industry professionals agree, saying that the country successfully welcomed thousands of tourists from Thailand with open arms last year without any surge in Covid infections.
If the country can hang on for the next few months, train new tourism workers, and maintain its roads and railways, it just might be able to handle an influx of new visitors, bringing much-needed revenue in 2023.
As Bennyy Kong says, “Covid is not going anywhere. We have all built up some immunity and learned to live with it. So there is no reason for us to not welcome back tourists, no matter where they are from.”
Written in coordination with Phontham Visapra.