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Eco-tourism in Laos

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Laos has beautiful clean rivers and lush forest, and small villages with unique customs and culture.

In the 1990’s annual visitor numbers were in the tens of thousands, but now the country welcomes around one million people each year. Tourism is one of the largest generators of foreign exchange.

In particular, the eco-tourism sector has flourished, with nature and culture-based tourism accounting for nearly half of all visits.

To find out more, Elise Potaka visited the Laos’s first eco-tourism project in Luang Nam Tha province.

It’s a sunny day on the Nam Tha river in northern Laos. In a long narrow motorboat, we head downstream past children bathing and fishing in the shallows.

This is part of the Nam Ha, a national protected area of around 220 000 hectares.

I’ve come here with Mick, an assistant tour guide with the local government-run eco-tourism office.

We stop at villages along the river, and Mick introduces different aspects of local life…the crops they grow, the types of houses they live in, and any special customs.

“Lantan - they plant rubber trees, rice, pumpkin, cassava. They have a primary school also.”

For lunch, we sit down on one of the shady banks.

Mick and the boatmen scramble through the undergrowth, picking a local herb to add to the sticky rice and curry we brought with us.

“Pak Kut, we boil or steam, eat with chilli sauce, it’s local food.”

Mick picks some extra Pak Kut to take back to his mother.

Mick used to work in his family’s restaurant, but this new job can help him improve his English and bring in his own income.

At the moment he’s in training to become a lead guide. But first he must pass a test.

Bun Tha, manager of the Nam Ha Ecotourism Service.

“We train them in English and policy and conservation, and hospitality. We have to test, so next month we invite some foreigners or experts from eco-toursim to test them about English and then we take them to make a tour, like trekking, like…who do best.”

The service is part of the Nam Ha Ecotourism project which began in 1999 with the aim of creating locally-managed, community-based tourism.

Now proceeds from tourists are shared throughout the villages, and the emphasis is on preserving culture and the environment.

“The money that we will pay for food, directly to the local people, and handicraft, and sleeping in the village and transportation from the local tuk-tuk. The local guides we took from villages around the city. Some people were hunters, when they were hunters they only hunt for wildlife to sell in the market, they get money only one time. Now they can take some tourist to see wildlife so they can get money many time.”

Here in Lantan village, the women make up a song which talks about how their lives are improving. They say they have a better income and more access to education.

Villager Bo Kham describes one of the changes to the women’s lives.

“Before women would just stay and work in the house and some had forgotten how to make our traditional handicrafts. But the project revived this. Now we can make handicrafts and earn some money for ourselves.”

The women hand-sew and embroider bags and shoes, not just to sell to tourists, but to use for themselves.

And the proceeds are shared around. Stephen Schipani, now an advisor to the Laos Tourism Administration, was previously a technical advisor to the Nam Ha Ecotourism Project.

“We can say now - there’s been a number of external evaluations done - that it’s creating good employment and income generating activities amongst the villages, pretty equitably distributed amongst the families, especially amongst men and women and amongst the different ethnic groups. There’s generally these systems in place, whether it’s a rotational system or village development funds, that the villagers are able to access, and the villagers are generally happy about it.”

The Nam Ha model is now being used as a base for other tourism programs across Laos.

But there are still challenges ahead.

By providing villagers with other income means, the government wanted to stop the illegal hunting of wildlife and clearing of forest.

But, Stephen Schipani says, enforcement needs to be improved.

“Although we raised a lot of awareness and we arranged funds for protected area management, there’s not a lot of protected area managers that are employed. There’s very good government policy in place, but having the people in place to go out and implement this policy, they’re often not there. And when they are there, they often need more training, they need more income and equipment and things like this.”

Another problem is the increase in rubber plantations in the area. The hills along the Nam Tha River are lined with rubber trees. Villagers here believe that rubber sold to China, just across the border, will bring in quick cash.

But Bun Tha at the local eco-tourism service says the promise of short-term cash can sometimes blind villagers to the longer-term potential of eco-tourism.

“I think eco-tourism now has helped them to get more benefits, just a little bit of benefits. But they don’t care about the future, they need only money very quickly. They like to grow rubber trees, but all the tourists visit Laos they don’t want to see rubber trees, they need fresh air, forest.”

The Laos government has just put a moratorium on all new rubber plantations in Luang Nam Tha while they assess the impacts on the local economy and culture.

But at the moment it’s unclear how this will be enforced at a local village level.

Here at Sup Sim, not far from Lantan, locals say that rubber now brings in more money than tourism.

On the Nam Tha River, the boatman heads back upstream to where our journey began.

This is just one of the many trips tourists here can take – there are also overnight jungle treks and bicycle rides through villages.

Everyone involved gets a share of the benefits. The guide, the boatmen and the villagers walk away with some money which they can feed back into their communities.

And the tourists benefit from the kind of local knowledge and insight that even the best guide book can’t provide.


Last Updated ( Friday, 29 May 2009 11:33 )  

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