Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Is the Party Over in Laos?

A crackdown on bars in northern Laos reveals deeper problems with tourism in this small, landlocked country.

Set alongside the natural beauty of the Nam Song river and the karst mountains of northern Laos, they’re an odd sight: the scores ramshackle bamboo huts built into the jungle, filled with backpackers stumbling in time to the beat of stereo-pumped reggae. Those structures look stranger still now that many of them are abandoned and swiftly becoming dilapidated.

In late August, police travelled 160km north from the Laotian capital Vientianne to shut down over 20 bars in Vang Vieng, including many along river and on an island close to the town. The state-run Vientiane Times claimed that the bars it targeted were “being operated in contravention of regulations, including the provision of unsafe drinks to customers, while some also had no business licenses.” Laos’s Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong visited the spot prior to the shut down.

The move no doubt disappointed the swarms of backpackers for which the area is infamous. Over the past decade, the spot has become especially popular on the backpacker trail for ‘tubing’ – floating down the swift river in a tyre-tubes culled from tractors – and stopping in various waterholes along the way for beers, free shots of local rice spirit Lao Lao, and sand-buckets full of spirits or drugs. Tourists have reportedly spent 70bn kip (or $8.75m) in Vang Vieng in 2012 alone. The tubes are rented out by two shops for about $7 each, and proceeds go back to a collective of villages.

But after a number of tourist deaths in and about the water, authorities are clamping down on the industries that service the revelers. Laos’ decision to host the semi-annual Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in November also has a lot to do with it, according to every expat publican, wisecracking Laos entrepreneur or vanquished bar-owner. Like its neighbor Vietnam, Laos has a tendency to shut anything that smells or sounds like fun prior to important events.

“This affects everyone,” says one disgruntled bar owner. “Money’s like… a motorbike wheel. If you have no customers and make no money, you don’t spend so much at the market to feed your family. The whole town suffers. Over ten years ago 90 per cent here were farmers. Think we can go all go back to that?”

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Before the latest crackdown, the authorities had taken some small steps, such as putting up notices that explaining acceptable and unacceptable social mores in the predominately Buddhist country. Clothing, to give one example, is not an optional extra on town streets.

Despite the local discontent about the government’s actions, even residents of Vang Vieng agree that tourism management could be done much better. Bar owners, some still running bootleg operations out of now-skeletal bars, have pointed to the fact that all enforcement has been carried out by police from the capital. Local police, by contrast, tended to turn a blind eye to the excesses of the tourist industry – which they also used to line their own pockets. Anecdotal reports indicate the tourist police have long made a tidy income from selling tourists drugs and then arresting and fining them large sums.

“The tourist industry is important, but there is no government direction for its development,” Dr Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos-expert at the University of Queensland in Australia, told The Diplomat. “The only thing of concern to Party officials is that they get a cut of the action.”

Tourism is one of Laos’ biggest revenue earners: according to World Bank data, over 1.6 million people visited the nation of 6.2 million inhabitants in 2010. The New York Times named Laos the number-one travel destination of 2008. The country pushes its cultural capital: its temples, its stunning landscape. There is plenty of foreign investment, in the form of both aid and private sector business.

But donor-funded tourism projects often look better on paper than they do from the bottom of a beachside cocktail glass. Bernie Rosenbloom, a Vientiane-based writer and consultant in the travel industry, laments the way Laotian tourism sells itself. It “has consistently been one of Laos’ top-three revenue earners,” he says. “However, [Laos] is not a leisure but niche destination: culture, nature, adventure, religion, history. As most of these [factors appeal to] deep-pocketed baby boomers, I believe there is much to gain from tourism if correctly marketed, which it is not.”

Indeed, in recent years there has been more to do in Vang Vieng than simply gulp cheap hooch and lurch back into the inner tube for an exhilarating but perilous jaunt down the river. Kayaking, rock climbing and mountain biking have all been developed into successful, and less boozy, ventures. Kayakers are becoming as common on the Nam Song River as tubers these days.

An oft-asked question is whether there are bigger plans for the town. In addition to the backpacker dens – all of which show Friends and Family Guy interminably on flat-screen TVs – expensive guesthouses are starting to be built. Certainly those staying in $40-a-night rooms want more than a $5 sand-bucket full of local ‘whiskey’ and drugs.

Yet despite the closure of the bars, Laos’s authorities seem ambivalent about prioritizing Vang Vieng’s more refined pleasures. Rosenbloom believes Laos may stay a secondary destination, reliant on a trickle through of tourists from neighboring countries, as well as people on the party trail. “Vang Vieng recently opened the Kaeng Nyui Waterfall loop,” he noted, “and is developing its many caves to promote the area as more than an endless party.”

Whether the bars will re-open, as some hope, remains to be seen. But if Vang Vieng wants to avoid being tainted by the fruits of its own success, the government will need to make some difficult calculations about the nature and number of the tourists it wants to attract.