Vang Vieng has morphed into an “anything goes” party town for young Western tourists drawn by “tubing” where they float down the Nom Sok river, calling into riverside bars to drink potent concoctions. But the Laotian government has clamped down on the problem.
Report – By Josh Martin
A government crackdown in South-East Asia’s party “mecca” of Vang Vieng in Laos has been welcomed by some tourism operators fed up with the town’s poor reputation and death toll.
However, the effect on tourism income for the developing country remains to be seen.
According to reports on the ground in Vang Vieng and the Vientiane Times, at least 24 riverside bars were closed without warning by the Laotian government on August 31.
“The President showed up personally to make sure the closure was carried out,” Kiwi-expat and Vang Vieng guesthouse manager Chris Perkins told Pacific Scoop.
“The government is sick of hearing complaints from various embassies regarding the annual death and injury tolls.”
The tourist operators had seen similar moves in the past fail to last and claims the crackdown is motivated by regional political summits which Laos is hosting in November.
Fellow Vang Vieng tourist operator Greg Haywood is also cynical of the government’s motives but is still glad something is being done to kerb the problem.
“With the new Euro Asian summit coming in November the government have to be seen to act responsibly and show their commitment to keeping Vang Vieng a safe place for tourists to visit,” Haywood said.
Perkins said President Choummaly Sayasone did not want the “distraction” during the ASEAN meetings in the nearby capital Vientiane.
“Past closures have lasted only a month or two, so it remains to be seen if this lasts past the ASEAN meeting.”
Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism representative Phouvieng Sikaisone confirmed several tourists had died or were injured on the Nom Sok River in the past year while tubing, described officially by Sikaisone as “dangerous water activities.”
This is contrary to Tourism Minister Somphong Mongkhonvilay, saying his country was “duly recognised as one of the safest and secure destinations for travellers.”
Sikaisone says there were some serious safety concerns with increasing tourist numbers engaging in the activities on offer.
Perkins has witnessed the tourist numbers swell to rival the permanent population of 25,000 over the past decade.
It has morphed into an “anything goes party town” for young Western tourists drawn by “tubing” where they float down the Nom Sok river, calling into riverside bars to drink potent concoctions.
New Zealander Tash Welch experienced the cocktail-fuelled chaos first hand in 2010, saying Vang Vieng’s energetic atmosphere had a “hands-off approach to safety”.
“Drugs are plentiful and free drinks even more so.
“With rivers, rocks, rope swings and inebriated individuals you can definitely see how deaths occur.”
Haywood, manager of Fluid restaurant and bar, said Laos appealed as a party destination because the now closed bars along the river were “dirt cheap” and relatively unrestricted – until now.
“These tubing tourists get whisky for a dollar a bottle so unsurprisingly it becomes one binge,” he said.
“The locals and government have realised that the riverside bars ‘let’s see how pissed you can get and make a tit out of yourself policy’ is totally at odds with conservative, respectful Laotian culture.
The ministry’s 2012 study of tourist profiles and behaviour in the country found trends which backed up anecdotal reports from Vang Vieng.
Tourists aged between 20 and 29 make up almost a third of those visitors from the United Kingdom and France, according to the survey.
It also found tourists appreciated the value Laos offered, with the average daily spend less than $80.
Perkins, who runs Pan’s guesthouse with his Laotian wife, said because it was currently the low season for tourism in Vang Vieng, the impact on locals was not yet known – but “Western tourism, particularly the tubing phenomenon, has made a huge difference to locals both positive and negative.”
He said the impacts for Laos tourism income as a whole could be negligible, because the population was still involved more in subsidence farming which had less negative social effect than party tourism.
“The locals don’t like what ‘tubing’ has made Vang Vieng become, in terms of the drunkenness and bad behaviour,” he said.
“After the summits there may be a new system put in place, but let’s ensure it doesn’t return to the carnage of before.”
Josh Martin is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.