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The night market is one of the attractions at Luang Prabang. (Photo by Karnjana Ayuwatanachai)

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Laos plans to work with foreign countries, including Thailand, to transform its former capital Luang Prabang into a premium destination for international tourists.

The move is part of its national tourism campaign, "Visit Laos 2018", in Luang Prabang last Saturday, aimed at increasing arrivals from 3.9 million in 2016 to more than 5 million in the coming year.

" 'Visit Laos' events were earlier held in 1999-2000 and 2011-12 to promote tourism to domestic and foreign visitors. The potential of tourism development is evident to the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, which organised Visit Laos 2018," said Vongsavanh Thepphachan, deputy governor of Luang Prabang province and chairman of the steering committee for the event.

To reach that goal, Laotian tourism authorities will continue working with the public and private sector in Thailand to promote and develop cross-border tourism, connectivity and cultural routes between Luang Prabang, Vientiane and neighbouring towns with tourist destinations in the North and Northeast of Thailand, as well as Myanmar and southern China.

Routes set for further promotion are Luang Prabang-Loei, Luang Prabang-Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai–Chiang Hong (China), and Vientiane–Nong Khai and Udon Thani. The two countries also plan to offer joint boat tours along the Mekong River, on top of borderland tourism.

Laos will also work with other Asean countries, especially Cambodia and Vietnam, to help drive tourism, while Thailand will remain the gateway for international visitors.

Luang Prabang authorities themselves are working with Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Mongolia on tourism development.

The new tourism campaign is set to shift this world heritage site -- once ranked one of the world's most popular destinations -- to the next level.

Laos is also seeking to secure world heritage status for more of its sites, which number three at present -- Luang Prabang, That Luang de Vientiane and Hin Nam No National Protected Area.

Luang Prabang is also developing its infrastructure to serve more tourist arrivals. Some 90% of its roads are now made of asphalt; 194 cargo ships and 76 shippers are available and the international airport there can accommodate 747 aircraft.

Laos is also organising major events to promote tourism in the country. These include Tourism Products Exhibition Along Road Four Angles of Lanexang Culture in Thailand, Flowering Festival in Thailand, Asean Tourism Forum in early 2018 in Chiang Mai and Tourism Expo in Tokyo, and Japan.

In 2000, tourist arrivals to Laos totalled 737,208. Arrival jumped to 4.6 million in 2015 and are expected to reach 5 million this year, growing to over 6 million by 2020. In 2017, 655,412 visitors are expected to visit Luang Prabang, a 1.84% rise from last year. More than half of international arrivals to Laos and Luang Prabang are from Asean countries, with the rest from the West.

The average stay of foreign tourists in Luang Prabang is 4-5 days, with average spending of US$82 per person per trip. Domestic visitors spend an an average of $40 per person per trip.

Other destinations such as Vientiane, Wang Wieng and Pakse are touted as budget destinations requiring much lower expenditures.

Chin Pitak Norathepkitti, general manager of Sofitel Luang Prabang, said the town has strong potential to become a premium destination thanks to an abundance of unique, local products and its strong connectivity with Thailand and other countries.

There are six airlines operating at Luang Prabang airport: Bangkok Airways, Thai AirAsia, Laos Airlines, Thai Smile Airways, Vietnam Airlines and China Eastern with a total of 32 flights per week, mostly from Thailand.

To capitalise on the growth, at least five hotels owned by Thai investors, including Sofitel, operate in Luang Prabang. Sofitel is one of top three hotels in Luang Prabang in terms of room rates and services. The average room rate is 7,300 baht a night while the average occupancy rate is 60%.

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