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Laos' historic town sees tourism surge, sparking cultural worries.

Photo: (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The tourism boom in Luang Prabang, Laos, presents a double-edged sword for the ancient town's residents. While the influx of visitors injects much-needed revenue into the country's economy, it also raises concerns about the preservation of local culture and traditions. As dawn breaks over Luang Prabang, saffron-robed monks perform their morning alms-giving ritual, but the tranquility of the ancient streets is disrupted by the presence of camera-clutching tourists. With almost 800,000 visitors in the first nine months of the previous year and a projected three million by the end of 2024, the UNESCO World Heritage site is grappling with the challenges of mass tourism. 

The most notable impact is felt during the morning alms-giving ceremony along Kounxoau Road, where monks receive donations of food from locals and tourists alike. What was once a serene act of communal support has now become a chaotic spectacle, with tourists jostling for photo opportunities and obstructing the monks' path. Local vendors, who rely on tourist spending to sustain their livelihoods, express mixed feelings about the influx of visitors. While they welcome the economic benefits, they also lament the erosion of traditional practices and the disruption to their way of life.

The transformation of Luang Prabang is not limited to the tourist experience. Foreign investment, particularly from China, is reshaping the town's infrastructure and economy. The newly opened Chinese-funded high-speed railway has further facilitated tourist arrivals but has also deepened Laos' debt to Beijing. Despite promises of economic prosperity, locals report seeing little of the benefits promised by such projects. As the town grapples with the challenges of balancing economic growth with cultural preservation, residents and authorities alike are faced with the delicate task of managing the impacts of tourism while safeguarding the town's unique heritage.


Feb. 7, 2024 4:55 p.m. 2018

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