INTERNATIONAL ECOTOURISM MONTHLY
Year 6 - Issue 68 - Feb 05
setting up Laos first Ecolodge TOUGH?
You first arrived in Laos as a development worker. Why Laos, what made you stay, and what prompted you to initiate tourism and ecotourism in this particular part of Laos?
As Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-1980's I was stationed at Lao speaking villages in Thailand. It was during this time that I developed a fascination for Lao culture and language. I knew that in Laos that the people still lived much as they had for centuries and had not experienced the same kind of development, as had their cousins in Thailand. All I wanted to do was to be able to see how Lao people lived before development. Laos was still tightly closed and was impossible to visit. So, I travelled the border with Thailand and peered across the Mekong trying to get a glimpse of life inside.
After Peace Corps I settled in Colorado Springs and worked resettling Lao refugees. In late 1990 I was on my way back to the US after having spent two years working with Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Laos was just beginning to open up to tourists and I very much wanted to visit the country. During my visit I was offered a job by UNICEF in supply and logistics. My job was to travel throughout the country tracking UNICEF supplies. It was my dream job; I was able to travel to remote parts of Laos, which probably had not been visited by westerners in 15 - 20 years.
I stayed on in Laos as the work was interesting and it was an interesting time in the country's history. The Soviet Union was collapsing and the country was opening up to the world. I first came to Luang Namtha in 1991 with UNICEF and then in 1992 I was helping Save the Children/France (Enfants et Developpement) establish a primary health care project in the province. At that point in time Luang Namtha was very isolated. China and Thailand were just starting to lift total embargos. It was still difficult to travel to these countries. There was no running water, no electricity, no telephones, no television and only two small flights a week.
I found myself living in a community that had been virtually cut off from the rest of the world for nearly 30 years. In the 12 years since I've been here all of this has now changed. We watch CNN & the BBC. We carry mobile phones in our pockets. Laos is a member of ASEAN and Thailand and China are building an international highway through the province.
Travel restrictions for foreigners began to be eased in 1994. In 1996 suddenly backpackers were wondering the countryside and everyone was concerned about whether the country and its people were ready for the onslaught. In 1998 I was sitting in the market in Muang Sing having breakfast when I was besieged by questions from tourists about the life and culture of the Akha ethnic group. The tourists posted themselves with telephoto lenses on every corner of the market so that they could take photos of all of the ethnic groups coming to the market.
I knew what the tourists wanted. They wanted to get to know the locals a little bit better and there was no one around that was giving information to the tourists and no one who was helping the locals benefit from the presence of the tourists. I was confident that there was a way that both the tourists and the villagers could be satisfied with the experience. But it would take a bit more than this to get me involved.
During my years with Save The Children/France I had befriended a local boy, Pawn, who worked as our gardener. He had married and had a son. I helped him to go to study architectural drafting. At the time that he had graduated, I was working on a opium demand reduction project in Luang Namtha and had saved up some money which I wanted to invest. Pawn's father owned the land next to the Namtha River boat landing. They were interested in building a guest there. I told Pawn to draw up some plans and the rest is history.
What is it that attracts tourists to your Lodge, to such a remote part of the world?
There are different kinds of tourists that come here. But it is pretty safe to say that the majority come here for nature and rural culture and lifestyle. Luang Namtha is home to over 30 different ethnic groups and the Nam Ha National Protected Area. Gradually more and more tourists are finding their way to Luang Namtha for the express purpose of participating in community-based ecotourism. For most it is still a nice find along the way. More than 80% of our guests participate in some ecotourism activity here. I look forward to the day when most of guests come expressly for the kind of tourism experience that we offer.
Your lodge is undeniably in an interesting greater "neighbourhood", the notorious golden triangle, which has seen its fair share of ethnic tensions, civil war, major international conflicts (Vietnam) etc. In this context what role if any has Tourism so far played in normalising the life of ordinary people and communities? And what about the recent view of Cambodia's secretary of state for tourism, Thon Kong, that a "tourism triangle" could be established between Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, wishful thinking or a viable proposition?
Tourism in Laos is still a relatively new phenomena which, until recently, has been concentrated in just a few select areas. Among business people there is not a depth of awareness concerning the different types of tourism and how it can be responsibly practiced. The impacts and benefits of tourism have yet to be felt on a larger scale.
However, the Lao government has embraced tourism as a part of its poverty alleviation strategy. It is one of the three top economic development priorities of the government. The other two being hydropower and roads. And in this context the government has chosen to focus most of its efforts on the development of ecotourism. The government has developed a national ecotourism strategy and the National Tourism Administration's Sustainable Tourism Forum meets monthly to discuss issues and ideas related to sustainable tourism. The ADB has given a loan for the development of tourist infrastructure which includes a significant component supporting ecotourism activities. In addition there are currently three or four other ecotourism projects in various stages of development in Laos.
Laos has historically had close links with its Indochinese neighbors, the Vietnamese and the Cambodians. And so it is with tourism. A very large percentage of tourists visit two or all three of the Indochinese countries during their visit in the region. A "tourism triangle" is not simply a viable proposition but a reality. These three countries are also apart of ASEAN. Last year Laos hosted the ASEAN Tourism Forum, which was the "first" large international meeting that Laos has ever hosted. This is symbolic of the importance and the hope that Laos gives to tourism as well as the country's economic integration into the ASEAN region.
Tourism in Laos may not yet have had a major impact on the normalizing of the life of the people. But there are movements afoot which will certainly make this become more of a reality.
Cynics on the left see ecotourism as a western virus that can "infect" communities with "ownership", "profits" and even foreign spies. Cynics on the right equally suspect it of being "infected" with communist values. In practical terms, how easy has it been for you to spearhead ecotourism in Laos, a communist state, and how satisfied are you from current government legislation and policies in this field?
As I mentioned before, the Lao Government whole
heartedly supports the development of ecotourism. They like ecotourism
Laos has only allowed tourists free and open travel in the country since 1994 - just about 10 years. The government has genuine concerns about the negative impact and influences of tourism on culture and society. They are also concerned for the health and the safety of the tourist, which they realize that in many respects they lack the capacity to adequately provide for.
Ecotourism here is a structured activity with local people as guides. The government likes this because local people can interpret the local culture and traditions, can help the tourist to interact in a proper and sensitive manner with the local people and can also take responsibility for the safety of the tourist.
I think that the interest and support that the government has provided to ecotourism in commendable. There is a lot still to be done and still many lessons to be learned. But there are some good examples in place and a commitment at a high level to move forward.
In October 2001, a UNESCO Ecotourism project for the Nam Ha protected area at the edge of which The Boat Landing is situated, was awarded the 2001 United Nations Development Award for contributing to poverty alleviation in the Lao PDR. Ever since, has this project and award help your Lodge and ecotourism in the area in some concrete way? And, in terms of funding and know how, how important have international multilateral bodies been for your business? Did you resort to such bodies for advice and funding, were you assisted by local authorities, or did you go it alone?
The Nam Ha Ecotourism Project began serendipitously two months after the Boat Landing officially opened. We had no idea that an ecotourism project would begin in our area when we started building and likewise the project planners had no idea that someone would start up an eco-lodge. I can only describe the ensuing relationship as highly synergistic.
We became involved very early on in helping the project identify local guides as well as to survey potential trails. Sompawn, the owner of the Boat Landing, participated in the first guide training and was one of their lead guides for the first year or so. We worked closely with the project in many ways - from developing tourist information boards, to marketing, receiving study tours and much more.
Just as we played a significant role in helping in the start up of the Nam Ha Ecotourism Project, the project has been very important in helping to define the role of the Boat Landing and to building our business. The Nam Ha Ecotourism treks compliment and increase the value of our business.
We have received no funding from outside sources in building our business. Aside from the informal relationship with the Nam Ha Project we have built the business on our own.
How central to your success has partnership been with a local person. Was there a reason you joined up with one "home-grown entrepreneur" rather than a local community body?
The experience of the Boat Landing is a local experience. Without a partnership with a local person it just wouldn't have been possible to provide an authentic local experience.
We never intended to become what we have. In the beginning the idea was to build a nice, good quality guest house based on a few principles of business which I dreamed up ( and later found were embodied in the principles of ecotourism and sustainable tourism). We were playing with making a day dream become real. If the truth be known, we did not know what we were getting ourselves into.
What is the real motive for people in northern Laos to get involved in tourism: escape from poverty? self-determination? And if so how competitive on these two grounds is tourism compared to illicit products & services? Is there any evidence of a decrease in such activities after the advent of tourism in the area?
When I talk to villagers about their motives for participating in ecotourism, they always mention economics as their main motive. They see it as a way to make money. There are some that recognize the other benefits of tourism like pride in their cultural identity and access to information and knowledge. But in the end their main interest is money.
The Lao government aims to completely eradicate opium production in the next year. None of the villages that the tourists go to in the Nam Ha Project produce opium and the ones that did have not done so for several years now. So, in this sense you can say that ecotourism is a "replacement crop" for opium.
More significantly, I see evidence that the income from tourism lessens the harm and suffering of opium addiction. There are several villages the tourists visit that have high opium addiction rates. In these villages the money earned from tourism takes the hard edge off of the pain and suffering. As the villagers can no longer grow their own opium and as opium becomes harder to find, the price of opium goes higher and higher. Most of these villages have a subsistence economy meaning that they have little access to cash. To obtain the opium to sustain their habit, many addicts resort to hiring out their labor for payment in opium or to selling wildlife or high value non-timber forest products like eaglewood.
I now see addicts using their productive hours producing handicrafts for sale to the tourists. Interestingly, the village with the largest number of addicts has the best selection of handicrafts. Opium addiction is still a big problem but the addicts access to the cash that the tourists bring has lessened their suffering, increased their control over their own lives and may even help with the protection of the environment.
In a remote area, one would think that an Internet connection is a sine qua non for a Lodge in terms of attracting and communicating with guests. Is that so or is the Internet overrated?
The internet is an amazing tool in a myriad of ways. First and foremost it has allowed us to directly access our customers eliminating dependence on tour operators, magazines and advertising services.
When we opened the guest house, our problem was that all of the guidebooks said that Luang Namtha was not an interesting place to visit. We did not have very much money for advertising. So, the challenge was how to get the word out about Luang Namtha without spending a lot of money.
One day I was designing a brochure when I noticed a command in the program that would change the document into a webpage. This became our first website. I quickly realized that the World Wide Web would not only be the cheapest way to reach our customers but also the most efficient and effective. I went to Bangkok and studied web design for one week. I spent the next year and a half developing the website into what it is today.
When I was looking for website design ideas, I came across something called an "Eco-lodge". On closer studied began to realize that what we were doing could easily 'be described as an Eco-lodge. This is how I discovered our market niche.
Through our website we have influenced all of the major guide book writers to where Luang Namtha has become one of the major ecotourism attractions of the country. We have been able to access our customers directly, been able to network and share our experiences directly with other like minded businesses without paying out a tremendous amount of money.
Our website receives close to one hundred visitors a day. This pretty good for a little 10 room guest house in the far northwest of Laos
What is your view of Eco-certification? Would something as authentic as The Boat Landing really need to be certified by those that certify the hotel chains of this world? Do your guests mind if you are "certified"? Or do journalists mind?
There are a lot of operations out there which claim to do ecotourism. But in fact it is only an advertising ploy to attract customers. Certification was a way for us to differentiate ourselves; a way for us to show that we were sincere in our efforts to do ecotourism. There is a lot of controversy surrounding certification schemes for many different reasons. Our efforts at certification send a message to our customers that we are making an effort.
It is difficult to measure the benefits of certification. I cannot tell you that we have received more guests as result. But I can tell you that it has helped our reputation in the business among professionals and customers alike. It has drawn some media attention. The effort at achieving Green Globe best practice standards has force us to be more conscientious and purposeful in our claim to be an ecolodge. We have to think about how to do a little bit more.
More of our guests learn about Green Globe during their stay with us. I think that for most it is a pleasant discovery.
As a Lodge owner in a poor part of the world, do you believe in dual pricing, i.e. that "westerners" should be charged "western rates" long as profits go to good local causes?
We do not practice dual pricing. There probably is no need to. Very few Lao people would ever want to stay with us. We are too far away from town (6 kms) and in the middle of the countryside. Most of them want to be close to the market and near restaurants.
I feel that asking the price that the western market can demand is good for the local economy. We are able to employ local people, buy local good and services as well as use our profits to develop more community-based tourism activities benefiting the local economy. In short we are able to reap the potential of that market for the benefit of the local economy.
Now that or when you feel your "mission" is more or less accomplished, would you repeat the whole exercise in another part of the world? There is still a lot to do in Laos before ecotourism is truly institutionalized and the interests of the local people protected. The Boat Landing is just a launching pad for the development of community-based ecotourism in the area.
I do not think that I could really recreate the experience of the Boat Landing any where else. There are a unique combination of skills, relationships and personalities that have gone into the creation of the Boat Landing.
Interestingly, though, I have been giving some thought to returning to the US to explore what is happening in this area. My home state, Colorado, is a big tourism state. But as far as I can find out there is little genuine ecotourism happening there. I would be interested to see how our experiences in Laos could be adapted and used in the US.
Presently, I am working the a neighboring district, Muang Sing, working with Akha communities to develop a cultural trek where the tourists will stay in community run and operated lodges. The local villagers will be the guides, the cooks and will provide all the food for the guests. A private tour operator will be the sales agent for the communities. This project provides a unique opportunity to help a group of communities access the economic potential of tourism and at the same time help a tour operator understand how to help to sustain a community-based tour operation.
Thank you very much
The Boat Landing Guest House, (Web: www.theboatlanding.com) in the northwest of the country, is 'Laos' one and only Ecolodge' and an ECOCLUB Ecolodge Member since 2000. It is a locally-owned and operated guest house. The Boat Landing aspires to tastefully combine local culture and architecture with western comforts while at the same time working to ensure the local economy, society and environment benefits from tourism. The Boat Landing is now in its 5th year of operation. Now that the guest house and restaurant are operating smoothly, Sompawn Khantisouk, the owner and Bill Tuffin, his big brother and Marketing Director, are looking to reach beyond the guest house to help local communities participate more fully in tourism as well as to help the tourist have a more meaningful experience.
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