Tourism development near Laos’ Plain of Jars to be studied

The UNESCO world heritage site saw about 43,000 visitors last year.
By RFA Lao
2023.08.02
Tourism development near Laos’ Plain of Jars to be studied Tourists visit the Plain of Jars world heritage site in Xiang Khouang province, Laos, Aug. 2022.
RFA

A private company will study ways to develop northern Laos’ Plain of Jars archaeological site for tourism, according to an agreement signed with Xieng Khouang provincial officials.

The Plain of Jars is a major archaeological landscape and UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of thousands of large prehistoric stone containers scattered around upland valleys and lower foothills on a central plain. The jars are estimated to be at least 3,000 years old.

UNESCO recognized it as Laos’ third world heritage site in 2019, following listings of the ancient town of Luang Prabang in 1995 and Vat Phou, a ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex, in 2001. 

About 43,000 tourists visited the Plain of Jars in 2022, and around 70,000 tourists are expected to travel there this year.

The study will be conducted by locally registered CNP Import-Export Trading Co., Ltd., and should be completed within 12 months, according to a report by the Vientiane Times. There was no further information available about the company.

Some provincial residents expressed concern over the agreement, signed on July 20, after a social media report said officials had granted a concession to a foreign company to build tourist facilities at the site, the newspaper said. 

One local villager told Radio Free Asia that site management by a private company could result in higher ticket prices for cash-strapped Laotians. Lao citizens currently pay about US$1 to visit the Plain of Jars, while foreign visitors pay US$2.

“It is good, but the private company will have its own rules once it gets a concession,” the villager said.

Casino owner’s previous study

In 2021, Radio Free Asia reported that a controversial Chinese casino kingpin was looking at ways to develop tourism facilities in remote areas of Laos, including on a piece of land near the Plain of Jars.

An agreement signed by businessman Zhao Wei with the Lao government allowed him to do a feasibility study on whether to build a tourist attraction complex, a traditional medicine factory and a golf course. 

About 70,000 tourists are expected to visit the Plain of Jars world heritage site, seen in Aug. 2022, in Xiang Khouang province, Laos. Credit: RFA
About 70,000 tourists are expected to visit the Plain of Jars world heritage site, seen in Aug. 2022, in Xiang Khouang province, Laos. Credit: RFA

Zhao is known to have a large business network in Laos. His company has operated the Kings Romans Casino in the Golden Triangle special economic zone in Bokeo province.

The zone has been described as a de-facto Chinese colony and has become a haven for criminal activities.

One Lao academic told RFA in 2021 that a potential Chinese development should be limited only to tourism.

“The project must not include a casino,” the scholar said. “Casinos bring a lot of problems like crime. They should only be allowed near border areas like in Bokeo and Savannakhet provinces.”

The three zones

Khamphoui Nola, director of the provincial Department of Planning and Investment, told local TV on July 27 that the latest feasibility study will be conducted in accordance with UNESCO regulations.

UNESCO has divided the Plain of Jars into four zones for conservation purposes. If a project is approved, development would occur in the three zones that surround the archaeological site, Khamphoui told the Vientiane Times.

“There are more tourists visiting the Plain of Jars these days, and most of the tourists are from the EU and Thailand. But there are not many tourists from China,” a tourism professional in Xieng Khouang province told RFA.

UNESCO’s office in Laos has received documents related to the memorandum of understanding from Xiang Khouang province officials, though there has been no discussion about the matter, said an official there who declined to be identified because that person is not authorized to speak with the media.

Translated by Phouvong for RFA Lao. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Matt Reed.

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