Laos has been named the World’s Best Tourism Destination 2013 by the European Council on Tourism and Trade (ECTT) for its “perfect record of promoting clean, ecological and social orientated tourism”.
Laos, officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordered by Burma and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west.
After years of war and isolation, Southeast Asia’s most pristine environment, century old traditions, intact cultures and quite possibly “the most relaxed people on earth” mean Laos is fast earning cult status among travellers.
In naming Laos as the World’s Best Tourism Destination, the ECTT noted that the country “promoted a new a concept of community based tourism, friendly to nature, with low ecological impact and preservation of natural biodiversity and protection of endangered species and areas, especially the rainforest eco-climate”.
New Zealand owned backpacker bus company Stray was the first company to launch a ‘hop-on hop-off’ travel network in Laos in 2010. Stray Asia general manager Holly Zimmerman is delighted that Southeast Asia’s “best kept secret” is getting the recognition it deserves.
“We’ve been operating in Laos for nearly three years but had spent the previous 18 months working with the government and the Lao community to better understand the country to enable us to create unique itineraries for tourists. Now we have a thriving business in Laos and the surrounding countries and visitors have the chance to experience the untouched scenery, history and culture throughout this fascinating part of the world at their own pace,” says Ms Zimmerman.
Each bus in the Stray fleet has a guide on board to explain the attractions as it winds its way through Laos. “We take visitors off the beaten track”, says Ms Zimmerman.
“Whether it’s seeing the saffron-robed Buddhist monks in Luang Prabang, exploring Wat Phou, a twelfth century World Heritage site or exploring village life and remote natural treasures along the Mekong, our ‘hop-on hop-off’ transport network gives people flexibility to get on and off the bus as they choose, opting to stay in destinations for longer should they wish”.
Ms Zimmerman attributes Stray’s success in Laos to its undertanding and respect of the culture and local communities that the company operates in. “We recognised early on the importance of having a locally based team to ensure we were acting responsibly and ensuring maximum enjoyment for our passengers. With offices in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, we have been able to continually develop the product,” she says.
Supporting local communities was also a key factor in the ECTT’s decision to name Laos as the World’s Best Tourism Destination. “Community based eco-tourism shares tourism benefits to all the population and offering a social tourism is a lesson that Lao is offering to the world”, the organisation said.
It also applauded Laos’ “spiritual heritage; keeping alive spiritual tradition, preserving religious, cultural and historic sites of world significance. Integrating tourists and visitors in the atmosphere of the Lao people and offering possibility for an enriching cultural experience are all achievements that transform The People’s Democratic Republic of LAO into a first-class spiritual destination.”
For Stray, Laos’ award reinforces what the company has always known and is glad the rest of the world agrees.