Lao’s tourism problem

Foreign tourists walk through the grounds of a temple 18 April 2002 in Luang Prabang. (Stephen Shaver / AFP)

Earlier this year, the Lao government had targeted to attract around 5 million tourists and earn around US$900 million this year. Unfortunately, recent local reports quoted Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism Bosengkham Vongdala as telling a parliament’s session that the goal may not be realised this year.

In the first half of the year, the figure seemed hopeful enough at 2.1 million. However, the tourism sector had been hit hard by the dam collapse incident in Champasak province coupled with floods and natural disasters in several localities. Reaching towards the end of the year, as of September 2018, the country welcomed a mere 2.9 million arrivals.

Vongdala said other factors that contributed to the slowdown also included the slow development of traffic infrastructure for tourist destinations due to capital shortage, limited supply of air travel services, and the slow upgrade of tourism sites. He also mentioned the slow process of adjusting local entry and exit regulations to facilitate tourism growth.

Consistent decline

If the numbers don’t rise much more from 2.9 million arrivals in September, then it is likely Lao would have seen a consistent decline in the number of tourists coming in since 2016. This was after sharp increases in arrivals from 2009 to 2015.

Based on available statistics, Lao saw the highest number of tourist arrivals in the country in 2015 at 4,684,429, an increase of 12.6 percent compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, the highest increase in percentage was 25.1 percent in 2010 when the number of tourist arrivals climbed from 2,008,363 in 2009 to 2,513,028 the following year. The largest number of tourists had always come from Thailand.

Last year, when speaking about the drop in his country’s tourism sector, an unnamed government official suggested that Lao should attempt to put more effort into attracting tourists from Muslim countries in the region. He said that by providing prayer rooms in public places along with promoting halal (permissible or lawful in traditional Islamic law) restaurants, the country would be more welcoming to Muslim visitors.

Source: Lao National Tourism Administration

Islamic tourism

According to statistics from the Pew Research Centre, among all the ASEAN countries, Lao houses the least amount of Muslims. Forecasts suggest that this isn’t about to change anytime soon and as such, it makes sense that not much has been done to make the country more Muslim-friendly over the years. Lao, however, should reconsider this.

The unnamed government official’s suggestion makes a lot of sense if looking at the findings of several surveys and comments of several experts.

According to the Pew Research Centre’s growth projections (, the number of Muslims around the world are expected to grow steadily to 24.9 percent in 2020, 26.5 percent in 2030, 28.1 percent in 2040, and 29.7 percent in 2050, placing it as the second largest growing religion in the world after Christianity. The centre also expects Muslims to outnumber Hindus in the Asia Pacific region by 2030, making Muslims the largest religious group in the region.

A report by travel website HalalTrip last year also noted that Muslims aged between 18 and 36 are projected to spend more than US$100 billion annually on travel by 2025, almost double the figure in 2016. Douglas Quinby, an Atlanta-based travel analyst at research firm PhoCusWright Inc., referred to the market as an overlooked segment that the broader travel industry should look at and be prepared to cater to.

Currently, the top destinations for millennial Muslims in the region are Malaysia and Indonesia, nations where the religion’s followers make up a majority of the population. Lao will be hard-pressed to compete against those numbers but making the country a little more “Muslim-friendly” will certainly not hurt its chances at increasing the amount of tourists it hopes to bring in.

Catastrophes involving the country’s zealousness in building dams coupled with the high number of tourists it had managed to bring in at one point in recent history makes tourism an important market for the country to tap into. While there is certainly a lot more Lao needs to do to ensure its position as a top-tourist destination, perhaps looking at the possibility of bringing in more Muslim tourists isn’t such a bad idea either especially considering the developments set to take place in the region in the next couple of decades.

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