Lao Tourism 2023 Highlights: A Year of Recovery, Growth

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Lao Tourism 2023 Highlights A Year of Recovery, Growth
FILE: Hot air balloons in Vang Vieng, Vientiane Province (photo: Asia Property Award)

As 2023 draws to a close, Laos celebrates a notable recovery in tourism after the COVID pandemic left a seemingly permanent scar. Anticipating continued growth, the country has now launched “Visit Laos Year 2024” to further boost the industry in the upcoming year.

Here’s a snapshot of key moments from the tourism scene in Laos in 2023.

Record-breaking Arrivals

In 2023, Lao tourism authorities aimed to attract 1.4 million international visitors, a goal lower than the pre-pandemic 2019 levels. Surprisingly, only in the first nine months of the year did the country witness an impressive surge in tourism, with over 2.4 million foreign visitors arriving—a staggering 285 percent increase compared to the same period last year.

Among international arrivals in the first nine months, the top five countries were Thailand, Vietnam, China, South Korea, and the United States.

The welcoming atmosphere, coupled with strategic marketing, successfully drew global travelers. As part of its tourism strategy, the Lao government implemented visa exemptions for various countries, including Japan, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Russia, and Mongolia, offering stays ranging from 15 to 30 days based on specific requirements.

Dazzling Celebrations: Laos’ Cultural Events in 2023

In 2023, the nation played host to a series of cultural events that drew both locals and tourists from far and wide. From the Boun Bang Fai Rocket Festival lighting up the skies in May to the traditional Boun Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year), the That Luang Festival in Vientiane, the annual Boat Racing Festival, and the mesmerizing Boun Ork Phansa, Laos showcased its vibrant cultural tapestry.

These festivals offer a glimpse into Lao customs, arts, and folklore, enhancing the tourist experience while playing an important role in preserving and passing down the country’s cultural heritage.

Laos-China Railway Boosts Connectivity

Since its operational debut in late 2021, the Laos-China Railway has played a crucial role in connecting Laos with its northern neighbor, China, and has significantly contributed to the increase in Chinese visitor arrivals, with the railway transporting a total of more than 3.1 million passengers since its inauguration.

In 2023 alone, the railway recorded over 1.75 million passengers. In September, the Laos-China Railway Company acquired a new electric multiple-unit (EMU) train to cater to the needs of both domestic and international tourists.

Luang Prabang Tourism Boom

Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Laos’ premier tourist destinations welcomed a total of 779,811 tourists in the first nine months of 2023. This marked a remarkable increase of 121.49 percent compared to the same period last year, with domestic tourists contributing 177,596 to the total. Luang Prabang seems to be on the right path to reach its five-year ambitious goal, aiming to attract at least 4 million tourists from 2021 to 2025.

The town also achieved further acclaim by securing the top spot in the prestigious list of “Top Five Spots for Slow Travel in 2023” by National Geographic, one of the world’s most widely-read magazines. Luang Prabang boasts numerous tourist destinations, including popular sites such as Kuangsi Falls, Mount Phousi, the Royal Palace Museum, Wat Xiengthong, and more.

Other Lao Destinations Report Record Visits, Spark Global Interest

Besides the heritage site of Luang Prabang, other tourist destinations across Laos have seen major growth in tourism in 2023. Vang Vieng and Feuang districts in Vientiane Province held their positions as top-tier tourist destinations, drawing a significant influx of both domestic and international visitors. 

In the first nine months of the year, Vientiane Province welcomed over 480,000 domestic tourists. Notably, Vang Vieng district emerges as a standout choice for countless travelers, hosting over 300,000 tourists in the initial six months of 2023, including more than 100,000 international visitors. The district authorities have taken proactive measures to enhance various facilities and services, aiming to leave a lasting positive impression on visitors for the upcoming year.

Heading north, Bokeo Province also reported a substantial surge in tourism, with over 116,000 visitors crossing through the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge 4 and the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone from January to May. This surge translated into more than USD 5.8 million in revenue, marking a remarkable 484 percent increase compared to the same period last year.

Moreover, numerous tourist destinations spanning the provinces of Laos, including Num Kat Yorlapa in Oudomxay, Rock Mountain in Khammouane, Phou Houalon Mountain in Saysomboun Province, and various waterfalls in Champasack, have attracted thousands of visitors in 2023. Phou Houalon, in particular, experienced a surge in popularity, with approximately 500 tourists from Laos and Thailand visiting in a single day to revel in the mountain’s natural splendor and panoramic views.

Navigating Challenges 

But this success doesn’t mean the country is now free from major challenges. A pressing issue is the deteriorating state of its roads, causing inconvenience for both local and international tourists, particularly during the rainy season.

In early September, discontent reverberated on social media, especially among Vientiane Capital residents, who expressed frustration over the subpar condition of the city’s roads. Advocates stressed the significance of regular maintenance to facilitate smooth mobility and avert accidents.

Safety during travel poses another concern for tourists in Laos. Although such incidents are infrequent, a noteworthy case in August involved a foreign tourist being robbed and assaulted while cycling along the Pakse-Phonthong bridge in Phonthong District, Champasack Province. This occurrence triggered a substantial backlash on social media, prompting questions about the safety of tourists exploring Laos without concerns about potential attacks.

In response to these challenges, National Assembly member Valy Vetsaphong urged the tourism police to enhance their responsiveness in assisting tourists. Emphasizing the importance of issuing warnings or advice rather than fines for rule violations, the aim is to ensure a positive and secure experience for tourists in Laos.

Charting the Path Forward: Boosting Tourism for Economic Growth

Laos sets its eyes on the future, and the tourism sector emerges as a beacon of hope for the country’s economy. The country is proactively gearing up to entice a greater influx of visitors, with a particular focus on boosting international tourist arrivals.

As part of its comprehensive strategy, the Lao government is taking measures to strengthen air connectivity. Notably, Thai Airways reinstated direct flights between Vientiane and Bangkok in September, and Ural Airlines from Russia resumed direct flights from Vladivostok to Vientiane Capital in October.

Additionally, Laos’ major carrier, Lao Airlines, has also solidified a partnership with Vietjet, Vietnam’s top low-cost airline, to enhance both passenger and cargo travel between the two countries, with direct flight routes between Vientiane Capital and Ho Chi Minh City starting in February 2024.

In anticipation of an increasing influx of tourists, Laos is also set to inaugurate a new international airport near the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Bokeo province in the coming year.

High Expectations for Visit Laos Year 2024 Campaign

The triumphs of 2023 pave the way for the highly anticipated “Visit Laos Year 2024” campaign, which seeks to draw in 4.6 million visitors, encompassing both domestic and international travelers, with an ambitious revenue target of USD 712 million.