Last week, we touched on the topic of increased tourism to Asian destinations that are often seen as off the beaten path—places such as Laos, which has seen a sharp rise in tourism over the past decade. In 1990, visitors to the small South-east Asian nation numbered only 14,400, but by 2005 this had jumped to 1.1 million.
Yet with the economic plans of smaller, developing Asian nations increasingly placing weight on revenue from tourism, how are locals being affected? Do the positives outweigh the negatives? In previous entries on the topic, some of our readers have suggested that too much tourism simply ends up leading to exploitation and destruction, citing examples like Thailand as previously pristine places gone bad from too much tourism.
I recently spoke with Stephen Mansfield, the author of four books on Laos, including Laos: A Portrait, which was the first colour photo book published on the country, to gain some insight into these issues. Mansfield’s photojournalism has also been featured in dozens of international publications including the South China Morning Post, The Middle East, Japan Quarterly and Critical Asian Studies. I asked the prolific writer and photographer questions on how he perceives the increasing popularity of Laos, a country that hardly anybody knew about when he first started writing about it in the mid-‘90s. He had some very interesting things to say on the topic:
What do you make of Laos as a relatively new, popular tourist destination?
Laos has been an item on the backpacker and cultural tourist itinerary for at least ten years now, since the government lifted restrictions and a prohibitively high fee for visas. The backpacker commerce is actually quite good for revenue. But the darker side is the intrusiveness of many of these visitors, while the increase in the cheap drug trade—especially opium—is one of the attractions for tourists from the West as well as Japan. The problem for Laos is quite similar to that faced by many aid and tourism dependent countries—how to maintain tradition and cultural integrity in the face of outside interests and financial propositions.
In the case of Laos, a nominally Communist country, they appear to be replicating on a far smaller scale the model of China. That is, turning culture into a commodity that can be marketed but also manipulated and rendered harmless to the state. This is particularly true of the way the hill tribes, one of the most authentic custodians of culture, have been treated. The attempt to standardize cultural places and individual freedoms is demonstrated in the moving of ethnic minorities into the sphere of government surveillance, where their cultures can be neutered and then presented (a la China) in innocuous tribal “performances.”
Is increased tourism then, in your opinion, more detrimental than beneficial overall for a country like Laos?
Often it’s the governments of such countries rather than their less well-off citizens who are dependent on tourism. This is particularly true in the case of Laos, where large sections of the rural poor have been marginalized by tourism, or when drawn into it, they may find themselves engaged in agricultural processes—in which accelerated harvests utilize potentially hazardous chemicals—that they would prefer to distance themselves from.
What is your personal reaction to all of this, having had close ties with the country since the 1990s?
I feel a bit culpable, having published four books on Laos back in the 1990s that probably compounded some of the problems I mentioned. How do you remain respectful, while creatively exploiting the material and without setting off a negative impact? It's the old journalistic quandary, isn’t it?