Laos aims to lead the way in post-pandemic sustainable tourism


Covid-19 has hit the global travel industry hard. World-wide tourism losses are put at US$4.7 trillion, with 62 million jobs lost in 2020 alone. At the same time, climate action demands we drastically reduce our travel footprint. Even as the first tourists start once to enjoy post-pandemic foreign holidays, the UN Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism commits to cut global tourism emissions by at least half over the next decade.

But where does this leave countries - many of them in the Global South - who rely on tourism as a source of income and employment? And is this - as many hope - the moment to change the way we travel for good?

In the Lao People's Democratic Republic - more usually simply known as Laos - the €2.2 million EU-funded SUSTOUR initiative aims to show it is possible to reduce the footprint of long-distance travel whilst providing positive benefits for the local environment, people and economy. The sustainable travel scheme builds on a previous successful GCCA+ project in Laos to mainstream climate change into the Government of Lao PDR's poverty eradication efforts, as well as diversifying sources of income for poor rural communities.

For Laos - home to three UNESCO world heritage sites as well as some of the most unspoiled nature in Southeast Asia - it’s vital to get that balance right.

Rice paddy fields in the shadows of limestone Mountains, Laos
Photo by Anna Hoch-Kenney on Unsplash

“Tourism has been a big part of Laos’ economy since the mid-2000s,” explains Connor Bedard, Project Manager for SUSTOUR Laos. “But that’s had some negative impacts on communities and the environment. We’re trying to curb some of those impacts, because Laos’ appeal to tourists is in its nature, its communities and its cultures.”

“Laos is rich in its natural environment. We have more than twenty national parks, and a lot of  nature is still untouched,” says Inthy Deuansavanh, a hotel and restaurant owner who runs Green Discovery Laos. “After Covid this will be even more important, because people will want to travel in smaller groups, outdoors, with an emphasis on quality. The way to keep tourism in Laos sustainable is to keep it a niche, high-end, expensive product - that’s our strength because we can’t compete on price with places like China or Thailand.”

A key plank of SUSTOUR Laos is to help local businesses gain Travelife certification. Having a Travelife certificate means hotel and tour operators can take advantage of consumer demand for more sustainable travel.

“Travelife really helped us have clear sustainability goals and a framework to achieve them,” says Alexandra Michat, Director Of Sustainability at EXO Travel and Manager of the EXO Foundation. “EXO has always been passionate about sustainability, and we always look for like-minded partners in the markets where we operate. Since 2016 we have been taking climate action, for example by measuring our emissions both internally and offsetting our customers’ carbon footprint - not just flights, but ground transport and hotels. We also drive positive action in our supply chains by reducing energy, water waste and food waste.” In Laos, EXO’s carbon footprint is offset through a project for improved cookstoves managed by the Dutch non-profit SNV. Carbon emissions from flights are automatically calculated and added to the ticket price at time of booking.

But Alexandra admits getting the balance right isn’t always easy. "While we encourage and empower staff and travellers to travel lightly by creating unforgettable trips using carbon-neutral transportation and avoiding air travel when possible, we also understand that sometimes some emissions - for example by long haul flights - are unavoidable. That’s why we work towards lowering travellers' carbon footprint at their destinations. We’re always conscious of the choices we make, the flights and tours we organise - bearing in mind the negative consequences they can have. It’s about satisfying the desire to travel whilst trying as far as possible to minimise impact.”

Hot air ballooning is a popular tourism activity in Laos
Photo by Adrian RA on Unsplash

Sustainable tourism isn’t just about reducing environmental impacts. Creating jobs and improving livelihoods for local people is just as important - according to LuxDev, which runs a “Skills for Tourism” programme in Laos - in 2018 tourism in the country supported around 54,000 jobs, nearly two-thirds of which were women. “It’s very important for the sustainable tourism industry in Laos to provide employment opportunities for local people, especially young people,” says Inthy. “If you get local people involved, they begin to understand why they should preserve the environment. Nature has been badly impacted in Laos, through hunting, slash-and-burn agriculture, or cutting down the forest to make a living. If people benefit from sustainable tourism, they are less likely to trash the environment.”

That's a philosophy which Rodolphe Gay and his wife Toune Sisouphanthavong - owners of the famous Maison Dalabua hotel and two restaurants in the Luang Prabang UNESCO world heritage site - are passionate about. "We are in the process of getting Travelife certification,” says Rodolphe. "In the past three years we have completely banned plastic from our properties. It hasn't been easy because plastic is everywhere in Asia. It's crazy. We also recycle as much food waste as we can and use it as compost for our garden."

Other innovations include banning the use of chemical cleaning products and investing in a wastewater treatment plant. "Our property surrounds UNESCO classifieds ponds - they are the heart of our hotel,” explains Rodolphe. “We were worried that chemicals would get into the ponds and negatively impact the water, the wildlife, and the plants. So now we use only natural cleaning products." Organic food served in the restaurants comes either from Toune's garden, the twice-weekly local market or the nearby NamKhan EcoLodge farm. Maison Dalabua has also employed a young local woman as a full-time sustainability manager, whose job is to ensure the hotel gets its Travelife certification, as well as raising awareness amongst staff.

Tourists visit a waterfall in the Luang Prabang UNESCO world heritage site
Photo by Swapnil kulkarni on Unsplash

In common with other tourist destinations, the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on Laos’ economy. “Tourism provides jobs and income for people in low-income economies such as Laos,” explains Alexandra. “The Covid crisis has shown the extent to which communities and conservation organisations were dependent on income generated by tourism. For example, all the souvenirs and other products we buy for our travellers are selected from social enterprises, artisans, charitable programmes and communities in Laos. We take travellers to visit community-based tourism projects, to conservation projects and to places like the Laos Buffalo Dairy, a sustainable farm and social business near Luang Prabang. None of that has been possible during the pandemic. They are really struggling.”

Luang Prabang, Laos
Photo by Colin Roe on Unsplash

As tourists start to trickle back, albeit slowly, a core element in SUSTOUR Laos’ strategy is to raise awareness of the potential of sustainable tourism among local businesses. “We do a lot of marketing and promotion, to give businesses an incentive to join the programme,” says Connor. “It can be difficult to promote some of these ideas in Laos, especially among local businesses. We can help by promoting them through online and offline marketing, as well as promoting Laos in general as a green destination.”

“I think some of the local investors are starting to realise the potential of green tourism,” adds Inthy. “Before covid, very few local companies were involved, but now they are starting to realise how beautiful their country is. It’s a good sign, because we need more operators to help Laos become a sustainable destination.”

“Most people understand why we need to travel more sustainably,” adds Alexandra. “But they don’t always understand how to do it. How we can change our processes, our operations, how we can train our staff to really understand that every choice they make has consequences?”

It is perhaps too early to judge whether sustainability becomes the ‘new normal’ for post-pandemic tourism. But in Laos, at least, the travel and hospitality sector seems up for the challenge