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Struggling businesses ready to welcome tourists again as Laos reopens

Laos fully reopened its borders to foreign visitors Monday after more than two years of coronavirus restrictions, a move applauded by business owners who rely on tourism to the landlocked Southeast Asian nation.

Laos’ economy is likely to still feel the effects of the pandemic, however, as China, a major economic partner, is keeping its borders closed after a resurgence of the virus in many of the country’s major cities.

The Lao Prime Minister’s Office issued a notice May 7 indicating that it would lift nearly all restrictions, including reopening all international border checkpoints and entertainment venues in the country.

Everyone aged 12 and over who is not vaccinated, including Lao citizens, have to show negative COVID-19 tests within 48 hours of their departure for Laos. But they do not need to submit to tests following their arrival, and vaccinated people do not have to be tested at all, the notice said.

“As the notice indicated, we’re now wide open,” an official of the Information Culture and Tourism Department of the Lao capital Vientiane told RFA’s Lao service Monday on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“All the Lao-Thai friendship bridges are open and everybody is free to enter or exit Laos and can travel all over the country,” the official said.

A Thai immigration officer at a bridge between Laos’ Savannakhet province and Thailand’s Mukdahan province told RFA on Monday that traffic has already picked up.

“They’re required to have only their passport and a proof of vaccination,” the Thai officer said. “Many Thais and Laotians have crossed the bridge today.”

That is welcome news to many Laotians who have struggled to keep businesses afloat without the benefit of tourism.

“We’re happy because we’ve been struggling for more than two years,” a restaurant owner in Vang Vieng, a popular tourist town in Vientiane province, told RFA. “We all hope that the tourists come to our town and our country soon, so that we can have some badly needed income.”

That sentiment was shared by a hotel employee in Vientiane.

“I’m happy that we have the opportunity to receive more foreign tourists,” the source said. “The country is completely open like before the pandemic, and I am happy to return to my job and see all the night clubs and karaoke bars open again.”

Laos relies heavily on its tourism industry: the 4.8 million foreign visitors it welcomed in 2019 accounted for 5.9% of its gross national product (GNP). Tourism fell off a cliff in 2020 when the pandemic hit. Only 886,400 visitors arrived in Laos that year, the latest data from the World Tourism Organization, generating just 1.2% of GNP.

Tourism from Thailand is especially important to Laos, accounting for more than 2 million of the 2019 visits.

But more than 1 million Chinese also visited Laos that year, and until China relaxes its border restrictions, tourism is unlikely to reach pre-pandemic levels. Exports to China will also remain limited, further delaying a full economic recovery.

“We’ve been open since yesterday, but the Chinese side hasn’t opened yet because China hasn’t lifted their COVID-19 restrictions,” a Lao border official stationed at Boten, the main crossing point between China and Laos in Luang Namtha province, told RFA on Tuesday. “They are only allowing a maximum of 300 trucks a day into their country.”

Trucks from Laos must wait more than a week to get into China, a Lao trucker said.

“They’re not open. It’s getting more difficult to get into China and it takes at least seven days to cross the border,” he told RFA.

An official at Luang Namtha’s Public Works and Transport Department told RFA that the Chinese authorities are overly strict.

“When are they going to open their border? The answer is ‘I don’t know,’ because the number of COVID-19 cases in China is still on the rise, several thousand a day,” the source said.

In the most recent outbreak, newly confirmed daily cases in China peaked in late April at more than 30,000. But major cities across the country remain under strict lockdowns as part of the country’s zero-COVID policy.

The number of active COVID-19 cases in Laos is in decline, with only 110 new cases on Monday. About 67 percent of the country’s population of 7.2 million are fully vaccinated. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the country confirmed 208,535 cases and 749 deaths, according to statistics from the health ministry.

Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.