Putting Communities at the Center of Ecotourism Development in Lao PDR

Putting Communities at the Center of Ecotourism Development in Lao PDR

Ecotourism Laos


By Steven Schipani, Team Leader Mekong Tourism Development Project, Lao PDR


With nearly half the country covered in dense monsoon forest, 49 officially recognized ethnic groups, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 13% of its land set aside in a network of 20 National Protected Areas, Lao PDR has the resources to become one of the top ecotourism destinations in Asia. In 2005, Lao PDR welcomed over 1 million international tourists.


More than half say they came to experience the country’s rich cultural and natural heritage. In an effort to ensure that ecotourism benefit the environment, traditional culture, and make meaningful contributions to poverty alleviation, the Lao Government, with technical assistance from SNV, a Dutch NGO, implemented its National Ecotourism Strategy and Action Plan in 2005.


The strategy is centered on empowering local people to better understand, develop, operate and monitor ecotourism destinations and services in National Protected Areas. In Laos, since the boundaries of protected areas were drawn long after indigenous people were already living there, government policy supports for local people’s sustainable use of natural resources –including ecotourism– on ancestral lands, even if they fall inside a National Protected Area.


The country's first successful example of how to use ecotourism as an alternative livelihood strategy and to assist with environmental conservation in a protected area was conceived and tested by the UNESCO-LNTA Nam Ha Ecotourism Project.


This ongoing project has been awarded a British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Award and the UN Development Award for Poverty Alleviation in Lao PDR. Shortly after the Nam Ha Project commenced in 1999, a number of international organizations also joined the government’s efforts to support community- based ecotourism projects throughout the country.


Part of the step-by-step development process practiced at the community level involves baseline heritage resource and socio-economic surveys, ecotourism seminars, guide training, gender and ethnic minority participation programs, development of educational materials and the construction of small-scale support infrastructure such as information centers, markets, river piers and sanitation.


Hospitality management training, continuing foreign language training, handicraft marketing seminars and environmental and socio-economic monitoring follow. The Lao government and its main development partners such as ADB, UNESCO, SNV, WWF, and the EU, work closely with the private sector on designing tour programs, negotiating contractual agreements between communities and tour companies, marketing and promotion, and continuing education for tour guides.


A strong component of all programs involves the generation of funds for protected area management. Now that a number successful pilot programmes have been put in place and produced good results across the “triple bottom line,” private sector investors are stepping in to develop ecologically sensitive accommodations, tour programs and launch ecotourism support services.


Though off to a good start, many challenges still remain. The illegal wildlife trade, dwindling forest cover, illegal trade in antiquities, weak implementation of zoning and land use plans and a critically under-funded and under-staffed Protected Area Management system threatens to undermine the resources that make the country so attractive to ecotourists.


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