The 'should we or shouldn't we' attitude to tourism which Laos has carried for much of this decade has all but disappeared. In an effort to attract visitors and much-needed foreign exchange, the country is in the midst of transforming this previously prohibited pocket of Southeast Asia into a tourist-friendly place. Visitors are now more than welcome, authorities are saying. But a fundamental problem remains: is anyone listening? Following in the steps of its big brother across the Mekong River, Thailand and its successful Amazing Thailand campaign, Laos has decided on a wake-up call. In case you did not know, it is Visit Laos Year 1999-2000. Herein lies the root of the problem, according to Sannya Abhay, vice-chairman of the Ministry of Commerce and Tourism. 'Previously Laos was seen as a place very difficult, if not impossible, to visit, and for many people, especially in Europe and America, it still is viewed this way. We want to spread the word that Laos is now open to everyone, package and individual tourists. 'Yes, even backpackers,' Mr Sannya adds. 'We want people who will appreciate our culture, learn something from our country and pass it on to their friends. That is why we instituted Visit Laos Year.' But to broadcast the fact that it is Visit Laos Year to the world is not easy for one of the poorest countries in the region. It simply does not have the money and the marketing savvy to promote itself abroad, especially in its free-spending 'priority' markets of Europe, Japan, Australia and North America. It is even having a problem within the country. When I told the general manager of a major hotel in the capital Vientiane that an interview with Mr Sannya had been arranged, he asked me to find out when Visit Laos Year starts. 'I'm serious, they haven't told us anything and we want to be part of it,' the frustrated hotelier said. His sentiments were echoed by an independent inbound tour company boss: 'What did Mr Sannya tell you? I wish they would tell us what is going on. If Visit Laos Year has already started, the National Tourism Authority, tour companies and hotels should be co-ordinating efforts to publicise it. We are quite willing to pay our share to bring travel agents and journalists into the country and let them tell the world. It would be far more effective than what is happening now.' Last year, Laos had 500,000 visitors, but only 120,000 were what it classes as 'international tourists'. The bulk of the rest were businessmen, day-trippers and government officials from neighbouring countries Thailand, Vietnam, China and Burma. Of the 372,000 neighbourly visits, the overwhelming number were from Thailand - 273,000 - followed by Vietnam with 78,000. But Mr Sannya remains confident. He says the campaign will help lift visitor numbers to 700,000 by the end of this year, with international tourists increasing proportionally. Previously, Laos had been nervous - some say paranoid - about letting foreigners, especially Westerners, share in the wonders of its country. Although the country, like its communist neighbour Vietnam, embraced free-market economics as far back as 1986, its government structure, from the politburo down to the over-populated, paper-shuffling bureaucracy, remains steadfastly socialist. The influence Westerners and their culture may have had on the sheltered locals was something the government was reluctant to entertain. But its doors to the tourism world slowly squeaked open. Once the country found foreign investors willing to pour money into tourism infrastructure, they decided it might be a good idea to let tourists in as well. And the tourists with all the money were Westerners, Japanese and nationals from affluent Asian countries. In 1998, the 120,000 international tourists spent about US$54.5 million (HK$425 million), while the 370,000 regional tourists forked out only US$30 million. In its efforts to herd in the tourists, Laos has opened up substantially. Visa on arrival, although a somewhat clumsy form-filling exercise, is available at Vientiane's Wattana Airport, the Friendship Bridge at the northern Thai border town of Nong Khai, adjoining Vientiane, and Luang Prabang airport in the north of the country. Visa prices have been cut from US$50 to US$30. There are now a total of seven border crossings in Thailand, Vietnam and China that international tourists are allowed to pass through. Although you need a visa to enter at these points, strategically placed 'partner' travel agents are allowed to issue visas on behalf of the Laos Government. Flights are available from a number of cities in Asia to Vientiane, and Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to Luang Prabang. The country is now negotiating with China to allow tourist flights from Kunming to Luang Prabang. China Southern already flies from Kunming to Vientiane. Infrastructure in the country has improved substantially over the past few years. The bus ride from Vientiane to popular Luang Prabang, for example, takes only eight hours by local bus on paved roads. Before, it took two days and there was a real chance of buses being robbed by bandits. Independent travellers are now free to move anywhere in the country. The country has plenty to offer. Vientiane still maintains its laid-back charm. There is a mixture of ornate Buddhist temples, crumbling French colonial - and sturdy Soviet Union - architecture. Sidewalk cafes serve croissants and strong Lao coffee. Tranquil Luang Prabang has been classified as a world heritage site by the United Nations. Set in jungle-clad mountains, beside the Mekong River, the ancient capital is a showpiece of classic Lao temple architecture. There is the mysterious Plain of Jars at Xieng Khuang. At Khone Pha Peng, on the country's southern border, are the biggest waterfalls in Southeast Asia and the home to Irrawaddy dolphins. Bokeo in the Golden Triangle has Mekong river-rafting trips and hill tribes; Vat Phou has a pre-Angkor temple built in the sixth century; Huaphan, near the Vietnamese border, was the power base of the communist Pathet Lao. The area has more than 100 caves where the insurgents hid and planned their revolution. For the record: Visit Laos Year 1999-2000 began on January 1. The official celebration of the event will take place between November 18 and 23. After the speeches, there will be performances of traditional Lao dance and music, and representatives from the country's 18 provinces will take part in a street parade, with floats highlighting tourist attractions of each province.