Learning Lessons from Luang Prabang, Laos
Creating a green way of life for the community and the visiting tourists
Ketki Gadre, 17-12-2022
There is much more to Luang Prabang than being an essential UNESCO stop on the backpacker trail across Southeast Asia. It is an inspiration for other towns across the world to take lessons on sustainability.
The ancient town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The fusion of cultural traditions, colonial architecture, and the townscape illustrates why it attracts visitors. But as they say, such titles bring responsibility.
For those who are a little unsure where on the map to spot Luang Prabang, it is a city in north central Laos People's Democratic Republic, a socialist state and the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Laos is bordered by Myanmar and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the southeast, and Thailand to the west and southwest. The Town Of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site listed in 1995 for its unique and remarkably well-preserved architectural, religious and cultural heritage, a blend of the rural and urban developments over several centuries, including the French colonial influences during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Sustainability is the buzzword that has taken the entire tourism industry by storm. However, it cannot be achieved overnight and can only result from a much more holistic approach where every aspect of environmental, economic, and social impact is part of the equation.
While tourism reaps many economic benefits for surrounding communities, practicing responsible and sustainable behaviours is the key to preserving such an ancient heritage town. The local authorities are well aware of it and are making efforts to maintain sustainability as their core policy.
Sustainability is evident in every part of the Luang Prabang hospitality such as; food, transport, hotels, and activities.
Water Refilling Stations
While carrying a refillable water bottle is always suggested for tourists, the usage becomes null and void if there are no water refilling stations in the tourist areas.
Thankfully in Luang Prabang, all tourist areas have a map directing visitors to the nearest water refilling station. Clean, cold, and filtered water is regularly refilled in these stations. So much so that PET bottles are not frequently seen for sale to encourage tourists to refill their bottles.
Restaurants and cafes also promote the use of refillable bottles. Cold, filtered water is kept in reception/ lobby areas which are easily accessible to tourists and can be filled. Most hotels also use glass bottles in the rooms that are refilled after request. Some eateries even offer a small discount if you bring your own coffee cup.
No Plastic Straws
While the world said ‘It's only one straw’, Luang Prabang took the matter into its hands and banned the selling of plastic straws in the town. The more readily available bamboo is used in making bamboo straws. These straws are used in cafes and restaurants and even in public events. Unlike paper straws that require adhesive substances to stick to the paper, bamboo straws are all natural and can be reused a couple of times before composting them.
Many local organisations employ local women to harvest the bamboo and manufacture bamboo straws. This not only gives employment to women but also helps the environment to remain green.
Organic food produce
Luang Prabang is blessed with fertile soil thanks to the sediments brought in by the Mekong River. The majority of the products in Luang Prabang including coffee and vegetables are organic. Privately owned farms and hotels rely on their daily organic products and they cater to their guests with the same.
Practices such as composting, feeding with bio-energy from plants and fruits, rotating crops, and leaving beds fallow make for successful and profitable production. The plants are generally interplanted with tobacco, marigold, and herbs so as to discourage insects and allow the vegetables to grow naturally.
A lot of cafes also use organic cheese that is locally produced and sourced. A social enterprise started on the concept of sustainability and offers to take care of pregnant water buffaloes which were earlier sold for meat. The buffaloes are given fodder, and medical care, and even rented until a calf is born. The farmers retain ownership of the buffalo at all times.
After the six-months cycle, it is up to the farmer to decide if he wants to keep the buffalo at the farm or go home with him. Most buffaloes go home to the farmers. Staying at the farm is of course beneficial to him as the owners pay him money, take medical care of the cow and feed them which leads to more chances of survival. In return, the owners milk the cow and make organic dairy products which are sold to hotels and restaurants in Luang Prabang.
The milk from water buffalo is beneficial as it has a less fat content and less lactose which can be consumed by a lactose-sensitive person.
There are organisations in Luang Prabang that are working hard to preserve the ethnic traditional handicrafts by employing local villagers. Most organisations employ local and sometimes handicapped women to keep this art alive and help them in earning income. Some of the handicrafts include wood-carving, paper handicrafts, ceramics, and textiles.
Capacity-building courses for hospitality staff
Most hotels in Luang Prabang are part of a CSR programme wherein the hotel staff participates in sustainability workshops conducted by GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH, a German development agency). The workshop helps hotels to formulate their environmental policy and maintain data of water and electricity consumption and how to reduce it. The programme builds local community members in the hospitality sector as skilled resources. English speaking and personal grooming classes are also conducted for the staffs by individual hotels.
While there are challenges for collection and disposal from the town, the hospitality industry segregates into two major categories – food waste and recyclable waste and most hotels have their own space for composting leftover food waste which is later used as fertiliser in their gardens. The hotels have a policy of using refillable soap and lotion bottles hence the amount of plastic waste generated is less. Whatever plastic and other recyclables are generated are sent to recycling agencies.
Cycling is very popular in Luang Prabang and visitors can ride a bike instead of hailing a tuk-tuk or a hotel shuttle to the city center. The city is very bike-friendly, wherein tourists can either rent bikes from rental companies or just get one from the hotel where they are staying.
The dedication to green practices by Luang Prabang, ethical sourcing, and finding value in refilling/reusing/recycling and utilising them for major tourism hospitality purposes is noteworthy. The dedication to creating community-based tourism and its sustainable support system by empowering the locals and creating a green way of life deserves the attention of global sustainable and responsible tourism practitioners.
Ketki can be followed at www.explorewithecokats.com