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No Big Mac In Lao Idyll

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Globalisation's critics have often bemoaned ‘McDonaldisation' as the homogenisation of the world by Western consumerism. That theory has been turned on its head by a new entrant to the globalised world: Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos.

The emergence of this once-sleepy town, nestled in the emerald green mountains on the banks of the Mekong river, offers a powerful counter-example for those who fear the marginalisation of indigenous cultures. Instead, Luang Prabang's global connections are helping promote cultural diversity while enriching its residents and the Lao economy. The town also shows how pre-industrial economies can be integrated into a world of jet planes and high-speed Internet, while maintaining its old world charm.

The first thing a Western visitor would notice is that there is no McDonalds or Starbucks in Luang Prabang, not even advertising bearing the Coke or Pepsi logos that are ubiquitous in most of the world. In the place of Golden Arches are the glittering green and gold spires of pagodas. The timeless early morning ritual of saffron-clad monks walking the streets to collect alms goes on, interrupted sometimes by a scrum of camera-clicking tourists.

Instead of wandering the town's narrow streets gripping cups of Starbucks, foreign tourists can be seen sipping fresh fruit juices prepared by countless street vendors on their battery-operated mixies. Though pizzas and burgers are available, there are no fast-food franchises or chains; most tourists take advantage of the abundance of cheap Lao and other South-east Asian options. Internet cafes abound, but most hotels and guest houses also offer free Wi-Fi.

In addition to Luang Prabang's unhurried pace of life, its pagodas, old caves lined with Buddha statues and beautiful waterfalls, the town's principal attraction is its colourful night market. Every evening a section of the main thoroughfare is closed to vehicles and vendors set up stalls where Lao ethnic handicrafts — from silver jewellery to textiles and wood products are displayed. Here, you bargain for the sheer pleasure of it, without tension or hurt feelings.

By all accounts, this non-pushy tourism promoting the Lao people's gentle lifestyle and rich culture has been a great success, drawing a quarter million tourists last year.  According to the government, in the past five years, Luang Prabang province has earned $296 million from tourism, halving the number of poor families and creating thousands of jobs. Per capita income in Luang Prabang has more than doubled, from $350 in 2005 to $821 in 2010. The new cement houses with tiled roofs and a plethora motorbike repair shops dotting the outskirts of town bear testimony to this new affluence.

So how did Laos manage it? To begin with, Luang Prabang's classification as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1995 helped put it on the tourism map. Still, other challenges remained. Despite its unspoilt ancient cultural heritage, the town traditionally attracted only intrepid backpackers, too small a market to support an economy. Facilitating access to Luang Prabang helped to connect this sleepy and remote place to the world. The government also did its part by investing sensibly in transportation and power infrastructure, and English language learning is the new rage as a passport to better paid jobs. Foreign NGOs and aid money were harnessed to spruce up Luang Prabang and a UNDP programme funded by the Norwegian government introduced a solid waste disposal system (like clockwork, teams of men on trucks come to clean up the street after the night market closes). Finally, a Canadian-sponsored community IT centre has trained the first batch of Lao to operate the Internet network — critical for all but the most technophobic of tourists.

As is often the case, the new-found prosperity generated by the globalisation of towns like Luang Prabang can be a mixed blessing. When times are good, everyone prospers. However, unpredictable shocks, whether caused by outbreaks of infectious diseases, political upheaval or financial crises, inevitably impact tourism. One event in a distant country can leave thousands of businesses without customers  and strand workers without jobs. But in this instance, the forging of global connections has for the first time given thousands of Lao the opportunity to grow their economy on their own terms as well as the means to prepare for whatever surprises the future may produce.

The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, and Editor of YaleGlobal Online


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 13-06-2011)