Lao River Town Residents Mixed on New Tourism Regulations

2013-08-30
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Vang Vieng sits along the Nam Song River in a file photo.
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Strict regulations in Vang Vieng, a tourism-driven river town north of the Lao capital Vientiane, have minimized drug peddling and other crime and prevented drunken tubing-related deaths among foreigners, but business establishments fear closure due to a drop in tourist arrivals.

The resort town, located about 180 kilometers (110 miles) from Vientiane, was once a haven for backpackers, drawn by the party atmosphere and water activities on the Nam Song River.

Tourists would flock to Vang Vieng for “tubing,” an activity in which they float on inflated inner tubes of huge tires down the river, stopping at bars serving alcoholic beverages and, in some outlets, drugs, which revelers have said police in the town would turn a blind eye to.

But the combination proved abrasive to locals complaining about scantily-clad foreigners partying through the night and to the authorities fearing tubing-related deaths among young tourists who traveled there in droves.

The Lao government responded by cracking down on the fun during the summer months last year, shutting down illegal bars, disassembling water slides, and enforcing new safety regulations.

New data is not immediately available but one tourist operator said that the town is “less dangerous” for tourists, suggesting that the number of deaths from drunken-tubing and other water-related activities may have dropped.

Nearly 30 deaths occurred in 2011 from drowning and other accidents.

vangviengmap-400.jpgMixed opinion

Some residents say they are pleased that Vang Vieng has returned to its former self—a lazy hamlet set amid a lush forest and karst rock formations.

They do not miss the all-night parties and what they say was a negative influence on the area’s culture, reputation, and young adults.

“It’s good because it is more peaceful,” a resident told RFA’s Lao Service.

“Tourism has become more eco-friendly and the environment has improved. Speaking for myself, I would like it to stay this way.”

However, businesses owners complain that they are losing revenue because of a significant drop in tourist arrivals.

They said businesses have suffered despite slashing prices, with hotel and guesthouse reservations down by more than 50 percent since the crackdown.

A number of shops are going bankrupt or closing down, they said.

A local operator in the service industry told RFA on condition of anonymity that while he is not against the government policy, officials must show “some understanding.”

“They should review the tourism policy in Vang Vieng so that no involved party is overlooked,” he said.

Tourism is the fastest growing industry in landlocked Laos, which hosted more than 3.3 million visitors in 2012—an increase of 22 percent from the previous year.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.