Vang Vieng, Lao PDR

RDK Group’s Jason Rolan: “It’s a game changer, but it’s also a double-edged sword.”

Wat Sisaket, Vientiane, Laos
Photo by Rob te Braake on Unsplash
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With the lifting of most travel restrictions, Laos and Thailand’s Isan Region look forward to welcoming a flood of new tourists – if they can fix a few persistent issues, such as the lack of air connectivity and uneven tourism development.

We asked Jason Rolan, Senior Partner of Vientiane-based public relations and advertising company RDK Group, to share his perspective on tourism recovery in this off-the-beaten-path part of the Mekong Sub-Region, and he happily obliged – as a big booster of Laos and Isan tourism, Jason has a unique perspective on area’s biggest challenges and the opportunities that are just waiting to be seized.

I know the pandemic has been rough for travel in the Mekong for the past few years. So how far do you think Laos has fared recently?

It’s a bit of a challenge. I mean, the country has only been open since May, and since then we haven’t seen a huge demand for travel yet for Laos, because it’s also the low season. So right now, we’re still in the nascent stages of of recovery. It’s not quite what it was three years ago. We are seeing some positive signals from the regional markets, but we’ll have to see how the upcoming high season is.

With air travel issues and global conflicts around the world, fuel prices that are just astronomical, it remains to be seen how in higher-spending Western markets, how their taste for Laos travel will be in the coming months. The biggest question on everyone’s minds, too, is China: when will they reopen? Because that was the biggest, maybe second-biggest market to Laos.

Are there any particular destinations in Laos and the Isan region which you feel deserve more attention from tourists? Are are there any bright spots you feel that more tourists should pay more attention to, as tourism recovers?

Gosh, where to begin? In Laos, let’s start there. There’s this beautiful place called Muang Fuang, which is in between Vientiane and Vang Vieng. It’s like Vang Vieng from 20 years ago: it’s got these beautiful karst mountains next to a river. There’s nice quaint accommodation, things like that. So it’s still a bit rustic and not really overdeveloped. During the pandemic, a lot of people started going there as well.

I also really like Savannakhet in southern Laos. Imagine Luang Prabang without all the restoration work, full of crumbling French architecture. These old buildings are being repurposed into cool cafes and restaurants and bars. There’s even an old cinema that’s been repurposed into a sort of a commercial and event space. So it’s got this really chill, laid-back vibe, and when you go, you aren’t running into hordes of other tourists.

Monk collecting alms in Chiang Khan, Loei, Thailand
Image courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand
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As for Isan, I really like to go and get outdoors in Loei Province, up in the northern part. I mean, it’s incredible how much there is to do there. You just get a car and drive around yourself and see the quaint, laid back town of Chiang Khan on the Mekong River. Or you can go camping in the mountains and or Phu Ruea, can hike up Phu Kradueng. You can visit other unusual spots full of nature; there’s a place that calls itself the Mount Fuji of Thailand, and other places, the Kunming of Thailand. They have these unusual rock formations and natural features that you don’t see anywhere else.

Just across the river from Vientiane, there’s Thailand’s newest province, Bueng Kan. It has this really great national park with these interesting rock formations, sandstone, limestone, mountains. And one of the rock formations, it looks like three giant whales on the top of this mountain. And you can walk across it and take pictures and see the view of the plains below. It’s just really just breathtaking.

I imagine once China opens up back for tourism, the new high-speed rail will be a major factor in terms of bringing tourism back. Do you have any thoughts on what the high-speed rail means for travel in Laos?

It’s definitely a game changer, but it’s also a double edged sword. I mean, tourism as we know it, it’s not going to be the same. I mean, it’s great that the train itself is a destination. People will come to Laos just to ride on this train. They don’t really care where they go on it. Right now, we’re seeing that with the Thai tourists that are coming here in in great, great numbers. The train itself still has some teething problems, especially with regards to ticketing and things like that. But I think that once China reopens and the trains can do the full route to Kunming, that will be taken care of.

The other issue, too, with the train in Laos is that it is a boon, but it also limiting in some ways because people just will come to Laos and think that’s all that Laos is. They won’t really explore places that aren’t on the train route. They’ll mostly just go to Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang – and think that they’ve done everything, when there’s so many places that aren’t on the train line that are really worth exploring in Laos!

Airport arrival in Bangkok, Thailand
Photo by Rach Teo on Unsplash
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One of the reasons why Isan and Laos are so off the beaten path is because it is difficult to to get there. What are your thoughts on transportation to those areas? Are there any ways that these areas can be made more accessible to tourists?

The biggest issue is air connectivity. We had hoped that with the ASEAN Open Skies Agreement and things like that, more would have happened. Unfortunately, it just never really came to fruition, especially especially for Laos and Isan.

We were hoping we could get these flights between Luang Prabang and Bali, just international connectivity which doesn’t exist right now. To this day, you still cannot fly from Laos directly to a beach destination. There are no flights to Phuket. There’s no flights directly to a beach in Vietnam. So it’s still a hassle just to get here from any place that tourists normally would go anyway.

If you were to put on a policy-maker’s hat, like what would you want to see more of?

We’ve really touched on the biggest one, which is the lack of international flight connections. I would definitely work on that. It’s also a dream that’s been talked about for years in the region: some sort of multi-country tourist visa scheme. It’d be nice if a tourist could come to Laos, pop out to Isan for a little while, pop back into Laos, pop back to Isan, things like that. Just travel around the Mekong. Unfortunately they have to buy a new visa every time right now to get into Laos. And that’s a bit of an expense and hassle.

Also with regards to Laos visas, there’s a huge market for regional expats that would like take a long holiday weekend if they’re working in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and come to Laos for a long weekend. But instead we don’t; if they do come here, they need to get a one-month visa and pay the full price. If there was a shorter-term one-week visa, that would be a great option to spur people to come, so they don’t feel like they’ve wasted money on a visa they don’t need.

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