Laos tourist jewel at risk of losing UNESCO status

Luang Prabang

LUANG PRABANG, Laos — Located between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang is a picturesque destination that combines natural beauty and charming Lao-French architecture. Here you’ll find monks in blazing orange robes passing by the town’s whitewashed colonnades, while longtail boats putter along waters between hills of tropical hardwood.

Yet beneath the town’s easy-going, old-world vibes is a growing sense of alarm among locals and conservationists. A recent UNESCO report has flagged several areas of concern that, if not addressed, may see Luang Prabang lose its World Heritage status, joining the likes of Dresden and Liverpool in attaining that dubious distinction.

These worries include new developments in the protected old quarter that have resulted in the loss of some traditional houses and structures, as well as concerns related to over-tourism and the erosion of cultural life. Specifically, there are concerns about the construction of a bridge on the Nam Khan River that would replace the bamboo bridge that is rebuilt each dry season, and the negative visual impact this will have on the town.

The report highlights the construction of the Luang Prabang hydroelectric dam 25 kilometers upstream — a joint Lao-Thai venture and the second dam to be built in the area — and the need for a proper assessment of the impact it may have on the site’s “outstanding universal value,” which Minja Yang, former deputy director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, fears will transform the historic riverside town into a lakeside one.

“If the second dam is indeed constructed, I believe Luang Prabang should be delisted,” said Yang by email, adding that the key reason for it achieving World Heritage Site status will have been voided.

An employee of the local government said he fears the town will lose its World Heritage listing. “UNESCO gave us many rules to follow, but now we do the opposite,” he told Nikkei Asia.

Named after the Phra Bang, a golden Buddha statue gifted to King Fa Ngum in the 14th century, Luang Prabang is one of the oldest towns in Laos, with a history dating back a thousand years. It served as the country’s royal and religious capital for much of its life, but following the country’s independence from the French in 1953, the capital was transferred to Vientiane. The city then retained its architecture — more through neglect than by conscious preservation — and this, along with its riverside setting, led to it being inscribed by UNESCO in 1995.

Today, over 600 buildings and 183 wetlands are protected under the terms of the UNESCO agreement. Standards of living have increased, while the town has been rejuvenated as young people have returned to work in the growing tourism sector. But such benefits have come at a price. The number of tourists has risen tenfold in the past two decades, with close to 800,000 foreign visitors in the first three quarters of 2023.

Due to surging real estate prices, many locals have opted to sell or rent out their homes and relocate outside the city. These days, business owners are as likely to be Vietnamese or Chinese as they are Lao nationals.

With fewer locals to support them, monasteries have had to downsize, while the famous alms-giving ceremony nowadays seems more like a tourist spectacle. During one recent ceremony, foreign almsgivers outnumbered Laotians, while hawkers sold steeply-priced sticky rice to tourists.

While locals are generally happy with how the UNESCO designation has raised their city’s profile, it has generated criticism too. The most common complaints, apart from rising living costs, regard the restrictions that prevent property owners making changes to their buildings, coupled with a lack of financial assistance in maintaining the structures. Depending on the tier to which the property belongs, small changes may be permitted, or none at all, while any new developments must get approval from the local World Heritage Office.

“If people want to tear down their house and build a more modern one, why shouldn’t they?” said one tour operator, who asked not to be named.

There are also acute concerns about the potential impact of the Luang Prabang dam, recalling the loss of life and property following a dam collapse in southern Laos in 2018, as well as the potential environmental damage to the Mekong’s riverbanks.

Though UNESCO may seem overbearing at times, many locals worry more about what will happen if the delisting goes ahead. Chinese are already investing heavily here, opening everything from small shops to big hotels. With the opening of the Laos-China Railway last year — which connects China’s Kunming with Vientiane in a matter of hours — that investment is set to rise.

Some locals, therefore, see the restrictions mandated by the UNESCO agreement as a bulwark against further encroachment by the regional power. “I worry that because of the railway, more Chinese will come here and buy property and land,” said a local business owner. “They have a lot of money. In Vientiane they build big buildings. But we don’t want that here.”

The World Heritage Committee in July may prove critical in deciding Luang Prabang’s future, with the possibility the town may be placed on its “endangered” list.

Yang said: “Without the World Heritage status, ill-conceived projects of shopping malls and casinos aimed for certain categories of tourists that we have so far succeeded in stopping over the past 20 years, will now cave into various vested interests. So I can only imagine what the future of the town will be.”