Laos’ green pay-off

As the four-year SUSTOUR Laos project draws to a close, has its aim to pivot the nation into a leading green destination been fruitful?

The SUSTOUR Laos project has been tapping into the country’s sustainability potential, working closely with tourism-related businesses and suppliers on various certifications in a bid to elevate the its rich community- and nature-based status.

“Laos is a nature-based destination, untouched, unknown, and a bit wilder than its neighbours. This is what we should be marketing and developing the country as,” said Connor Bedard, SUSTOUR project manager.

Laos is tapping into its abundance of nature for tourism; community-based tourism village in Vang Vieng, pictured

The project, funded by the European Union and implemented by Plan International Laos, aims to improve sustainability by integrating local tourism businesses into the supply chain through promoting and certifying sustainable business practices.

For four years, with an interruption due to Covid-19, it has promoted sustainable practices by getting more tourism businesses a Travelife accreditation. In addition, a homegrown certification has been developed in the form of Lasting Laos.

Modelled on Travelife, it is aimed at supplier businesses, including MSMEs in F&B, transportation, cultural excursions, tour guiding, handicrafts, and the souvenir sectors.

To date, the SUSTOUR Laos project has directly supported 378 MSMEs, benefiting about 5,500 employees. It has also reached approximately 10 million potential domestic and international tourists through its marketing campaigns, Lao-Visit-Lao and Lasting Laos.

Key achievements in the last year include six hotels being Travelife certified and delivering training to 66 supplier MSMEs. Under the Lasting Laos programme, 71 supplier MSMEs are currently registered and 17 have been certified.

Hotel general manager, Pitchaya Jirathumtanakul, said Angsana Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel in Vientiane, has achieved Travelife certification under the scheme. “We gained (a better) reputation, are able to drive business, and have earned more marketing awareness.”

Pitchaya added that while positioning Laos as a sustainable destination “creates more awareness among visitors who are more sensitive to environmentally-friendly issues”, challenges remain. 

“There are cleanliness issues, unorganised tourist destinations, and a lack of capacity to ensure destinations retain their charm. The government should play a big part in managing these issues because they impact the country’s image,” she said.

Under SUSTOUR, social enterprise Ock Pop Tok successfully applied for Lasting Laos certification for its Silk Road Café and handicraft offerings – a move that has proved fruitful in a post-lockdown world.

Veomanee Douangdala, co-founder and executive director, said: “Promoting Laos as a green and sustainable destination was going well pre-Covid. Laos’ borders being closed for over two years put a dent in that effort.

“That’s why the Lasting Laos campaign was so well received when borders reopened. Nowadays, a lot of travellers, mostly from the west, are looking for more sustainable holidays.”

Veomanee added that as an increasing number of travel agencies and tour operators seek sustainable accommodation, restaurants and activities for clients, Laos is on their radar. However, implementing a concrete national sustainable development is key.

She noted that waste management continues to be a major issue to be addressed, starting with education in schools. Burning season, when farmers raze agricultural land in preparation for the planting season, causing severe air pollution, is another challenge.

“Some international organisations could help Laos improve this situation for the benefit of not only visitors but also the local population,” she added.

Despite these efforts, Julie Beaufrère, product manager, Asian Trails Laos, said demand for sustainable travel remains low among agents that it works with. 

“Travelife and Plan International are doing a great job raising awareness, but whenever I do sales calls and meet agents in France, or all over the world, there’s maybe a two per cent specific request for this,” she said.

She said challenges lie with local teams’ lack of understanding about how to communicate sustainable initiatives and achievements in Laos. This is coupled with overseas agents figuring out how to position true sustainable travel without greenwashing.

“How do they promote sustainable travel while selling flights that cross the world? In a way, this is good because if they were selling our products without considering that they are polluting a lot and emitting a lot of carbon, it would be greenwashing,” she added.

Despite this, Beaufrère said sustainability should form the blueprint for the future of the tourism industry globally.

She said: “In Laos we’re lucky enough to be a small destination where we all live a community-based life, so preserving communities and trying to lower the negative impact is everywhere.

“It’s just that we do not yet have the words, the implementation or sustainability policies to write this down and prove that things are happening.”

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