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Sunset over the Mekong river in Luang Prabang, Laos. The town should be at its busiest at this time of year, but international tourists cannot enter the country because of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Jobs have been lost and businesses closed, but domestic visitors should help the tourist trade survive. Photo: Steve Thomas

‘Luang Prabang is dead’; in jewel of Laos tourism jobs have gone, businesses have closed, and the future looks uncertain – but a lot quieter

  • With the Southeast Asian country’s international borders closed for the foreseeable future due to Covid-19, some businesses are digging in, others giving up
  • Tourism-dependent Luang Prabang’s streets are empty, but operators see hope in a pivot to domestic visitors, who responded well to a novel Christmas promotion
Steve Thomas

An eerie peace has descended on Luang Prabang in Laos. Residents describe a tranquillity that has not been seen in the increasingly popular Southeast Asian tourist destination for decades.

This should be high season for tourism in the town, which has held Unesco World Heritage Site status since 1995, although in recent years it has been busy year-round.

Laos is a wild, landlocked country of jungle and mountains, and Luang Prabang is its crowning jewel. A spiritual place, the town is known for its Buddhist temples and morning alms ceremony, in which processions of orange-robed monks walk the early morning streets to receive gifts of food from believers.

The monks still emerge at sunrise to collect alms, but the crowds of selfie-snapping international tourists are no longer there to put sticky rice and confectionery in their bowls. This may be a blessing for those monks who treasure peace and quiet, but it is a disaster for Luang Prabang’s 97 hotels and resorts and 400 or so guest houses. Most are now closed, some probably forever.

In pre-pandemic times, monks taking morning alms in the streets of Luang Prabang would be greeted by international tourists. Photo: Steve Thomas

“Luang Prabang is dead, completely dead,” says Henri Pierre Leveillard, the acting general manager of The Sanctuary, one of the handful of Luang Prabang hotels currently open. “I would say that around 80 per cent of the businesses have closed.

“Here in Laos, we had one month of lockdown from March 20 to April 20. In May, we couldn’t really open, but we did a little bit, although we didn’t welcome anybody because they couldn’t travel between provinces,” says the Frenchman, who is chief operating officer of the three-property Sanctuary group and has lived in Luang Prabang for 13 years.

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“In June, they started to open regionally, but the international borders are still closed. Unless you’re on a [World Food Programme] flight you cannot come to Laos.

“[The Sanctuary remains] open with around 70 per cent of our employees; the rest have been sent home. And it’s the same at Maolin Tavern [a bar that Leveillard co-owns]; now I have three employees, whereas before I had 10, and we only open in the evenings.”

In 2019, Luang Prabang saw an estimated 860,000 visitors, a number that fell to around 247,000 last year, with almost half of them being domestic tourists.
Boats on the Mekong near Luang Prabang. Photo: Steve Thomas

“There are no foreigners, so the market went from Westerners to us focusing only on the Laos market,” says Leveillard. “In one way it’s good; we’re making the best out of what we can have locally, which means that in the future we will remember how to attract the local market.”

Vientiane, the national capital, is a short flight or a long drive away, and is the main target when attracting local tourists. “We do a lot of promotion on social media. Everything is in the Lao language, and we target that market – from Vientiane, Savannakhet and Pakse – because all these people can not travel out of Laos now.”

The closing of international borders does at least seem to have shielded the population from the virus, with just 41 officially confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Laos. Economic survival is another matter.

Previously busy tourist areas, such as Pak Beng village, now have no tourists. Photo: Steve Thomas

“There was no job in Luang Prabang any more, no foreign tourists and so I had to leave,” says Somnuek Souliphone, the former office manager for outdoor adventure company Green Discovery Laos in Luang Prabang. “I’m now in Boten, near to the Chinese border. I’ve been running my own restaurant here for six months now, as there are still customers thanks to the construction of the new train station” on the railway from China to Vientiane.

Welshman John Morris Williams has also left Luang Prabang. “We lost all [custom] overnight in March 2020,” says Williams, who was general manager of the five-star Luang Prabang View Hotel. “From having a good outlook for 2020, [the management went] to having to close the hotel for three months and running with a skeleton team to keep it clean and maintained.”

Williams has a new job as director of corporate operations with the Laoderm travel group, based in Vientiane, but before he left, he had to perform a balancing act.

“We put our staff off for three months, and then we brought them back in July, as the owner felt she had an obligation to support them. All staff were given a [reduced] salary, and in September the ‘rank and file’ went back on to full pay, except for the managers, who are still on their reduced pay.”

I know it’s going to be like this for another year. If by March 2022 it’s the same, then I will have no choice but to close all of my business and take my family back to Europe
Henri Pierre Leveillard, acting general manager of The Sanctuary, Luang Prabang, Laos

Duangmala Phommavong decided to temporarily close both of the hotels she owns in Luang Prabang.

“We decided to [ …] turn this tragic situation into an opportunity to renovate our Villa Maly, as it opened more than 10 years ago,” she says. “The second, the Parasol Blanc, was opened three years ago but without a swimming pool, so we built one and are improving our garden.”

Phommavong is also the managing director of EXO Travel Laos, which designs itineraries for tourists, and a board member of the Laos Chamber of Commerce and Industry. To survive Covid-19, EXO has closed some smaller offices in Laos and made staff cuts, and is focusing on developing the domestic tourism market.

A monk in the quiet streets of Luang Prabang. Photo: Steve Thomas

Businesses in Luang Prabang that are not so directly involved in tourism are also feeling the pinch. Saffron Coffee had two cafes in town and roasts and exports coffee.

“In 2019 we roasted more than 12.5 tons of coffee, last year we did 6.4 tons,” says company director Todd Moore, who moved to Laos 10 years ago from the United States. “We’ve still bought the beans from our local grower, and have sent out more as green coffee to Japan – around triple the previous amount – so that helped a little bit. But the price for green is very different to roasted, so it has impacted us quite a bit.”

Saffron Coffee’s popular riverside cafe is still open, albeit with a limited clientele, but “we closed down our second shop in March and it never reopened”, says Moore. “We kept our staff on until November, even though we didn’t have enough work. Then we had to make a 25 per cent cut in hours, which is where we’re at now.”

Luang Prabang at night. Photo: Steve Thomas

The pain has been necessary, believes Williams. “Laos needs to keep its population safe, and they are doing this very well. The stats show this.”

But what of the future?

“I know it’s going to be like this for another year. If by March 2022 it’s the same, then I will have no choice but to close all of my business and take my family back to Europe,” says Leveillard.

The good, bad and ugly sides to Luang Prabang – has it lost its soul?

“The question is what quality can [hotels] offer when they reopen,” says Williams. “Standards will need to be beefed up and cleanliness and Covid policies need to be sorted out. Souphattra Hotel and Luang Prabang View Hotel have created a manual and are working on changes.”

Phommavong foresees a remodelling of the town itself. “The potential of Luang Prabang is safe. This pandemic will clean up the town. Over New Year I was there and it took me back to early years, to 1993 and my first visit. I found the atmosphere to be peaceful, and life slow. So, I would say this is the true future of tourism in this town.”

Moore stresses the importance adaptability will play in the long-term survival of his and other businesses in Luang Prabang. “Even if the borders open today it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to have droves of people coming.”

To that end, more than 100 local businesses collaborated to promote a new initiative domestically over Christmas: “12 Days in Luang Prabang”. The town and a series of cultural events were promoted heavily on social media, in the Vientiane Times and on local radio. T-shirts were printed and an 80-page e-guide was put together.

Airlines got on board with special flights and offers. The effort paid off and, for a brief period at the end of December and beginning of this month, the streets of Luang Prabang were again busy.

Many townspeople are now hoping that a focus on the domestic market, which has never seriously been considered before – allied with the government’s “Lao Thiao Lao” initiative, launched in September and aimed at promoting sustainable and nature tourism to the domestic market – will see them through to brighter times, which may be very different to the recent past.