Laos, the Jewel of the Mekong, is rapidly becoming a new and exciting tourism destination. The country offers a diversity of unspoiled ethnic lifestyles and traditions, as well as some of the richest and most extensive ecosystems of the Indochina Region.
Although the population density of Laos is still relatively low, it is growing with an annual rate of 2.9%, thus creating an increasing threat to the remaining natural resources. Furthermore, illegal logging, poaching, wildlife trading and unsustainable use of non-timber forest products, only to name a few are an inevitable reality in a poor country like Laos.
Tourism is the fastest growing sector of the Lao economy and the primary source of foreign exchange. So far, tourism has not caused serious threats to Laos’ nature. To protect and conserve these irreplaceable resources for its future generations, Laos started to position itself as a world-class ecotourism destination.
Ecotourism is a form of tourism that will contribute
to environmental protection, the sensitive and sustainable use of
natural and cultural resources and the delivery of measurable socio-economic
benefits to local communities.
Therefore, not only does ecotourism offer a source
of income for villagers, it also provides them with an economic
stake in conserving and protecting their surroundings and culture.
Apart from that, it offers to tourists the possibility
to learn from this environmental and community-based experience,
so they will learn about the issues at stake.
The National Tourism Administration of Lao PDR, the management of Phou Khao Khouay and DED (German Development Service) worked closely together to develop sustainable tourism sites in and around the nature reserve.
They achieved this by involving the local people in all decision-making. In village meetings and workshops the entire community remained informed and was asked to share its opinion about the project activities. This participation in the entire development process built a sense of ownership and thus is seen as a key for sustainability.
The villagers of Ban Na and Ban Hatkhai were given extensive information about the benefits and pitfalls of tourism in their village as well as on conservation of the nearby National Protected Area. Trainings were conducted for villagers to become guides, to serve the visitors by preparing food and to offer their house as a tourist accommodation.
The aim of this community-based tourism in Phou Khao Khouay is that the villagers will benefit from tourism in their village to the best possible, instead of ending up in the hands of a few outsiders. Therefore, the people are given the opportunity to reject certain or even all activities if they are considered to be damaging to the community.
Tourism will help the people as well as it will contribute to the conservation of nature. With an improved economic situation the local people will realise the value of the forest and its wildlife and start protecting it. This combination of ecotourism with community-based tourism opens for the villagers a road to sustainable development.
After the financial, technical and advisory support from the German Development Service (DED) officially ended in December 2005, the villagers are now challenged to manage tourism in their respective villages according to the principles they were prepared for.
Nearly four years on (June 2009), this small project is still strong and well managed by the villagers with enthusiasm and own new initiatives. They recruit and train themselves new guides, maintain the elephant tower, "restaurants" in the village have been improved, the construction of a small guesthouse is under consideration. Mr. Bounthanom, the soul of the project in Ban Na, gets invitations from various sides (government agencies, NGOs) to report about the work they have done, their experiences, and the secrets of their success.
Ban Hatkhai expects a boost to its local tourism business by getting involved in new attraction to be constructed in the second half of 2009 at Tad Xay by a Lao tour company in cooperation with IUCN and UNWTO. In view of the country's Millenium Devolpment Goal, this project aims to support the private sector to engage in participatory tourism development in rural areas for poverty reduction and nature conservation. It is anticipated that this poject will also have a wider positive effect on the economy in the area.