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No longer business as usual: ecotourism and hydropower in northern Laos

Author: Sumiya B. TAIJ

Opening with a slogan 'Simply Beautiful', the year 2018 was designated as a Visit Laos Year to boost the country’s tourism sector. It was also the year that marked substantial progress of the last phase of the Nam Ou seven-dam cascade project developments along the Ou River in northern Laos. The same river, however, flows through towns and sites that are marketed to be one of the main tourist destinations in northern Laos.

The river put to work for development

About 30 kilometres north from the Lao heritage city of Luang Prabang is the Nam Ou 1 hydroelectric dam. Further to the north, the Ou River passes through villages and townships that are fragmented by six more hydropower dams. The first phase of the seven-dam cascade project has been operational since 2016, while the second phase that includes Nam Ou 1, Nam Ou 3, Nam Ou 4 and Nam Ou 7 are scheduled to be completed by 2020. Under a build, own, operate, and transfer agreement between Sinopower and Électricité du Laos, the project is set to release one-tenth of its supply to the domestic grid and export most of its produced electricity to neighbouring countries including Thailand. The Nam Ou seven-dam cascade project, with a cumulative capacity of 1,272 mega-watts, constitute a substantial part of the country’s goal of installing over of 14 800 mega-watts of total capacity in order to become the ‘Battery of Southeast Asia’ by 2025.

Aside from the dams, there are several other large infrastructure projects currently underway in northern Laos. A new railway is breaking ground after a decade of high-level discussions and a new road is being built that will eventually replace parts of the existing road that will be submerged under water after the dams are completed. The changing rural landscape of northern Laos portrays the importance of large-scale infrastructure construction projects for the country's development agenda. Situated within this broader development strategy, the Ou River is put to work for Laos’ future economic growth (for more on the ‘working river’ see Hommes & Boelens, 2018).

Picture 1. Construction of the Nam Ou 1 dam (source: author 2018)

The river put on display for development

Pak Ou is a quiet town where the Ou River meets the mighty Mekong. My host Ms Boua started running a small bed and breakfast since 2016 downstream of Pak Ou, just a few kilometres north from the heritage town of Luang Prabang. One hotel at a time, the peri-urban areas to the north of the heritage town is slowly transforming into getaways for tourists (including me), who want to experience ‘real’ Luang Prabang. The view of the Mekong River and direct access to the riverbank makes my host's establishment a popular destination for tourists.

When I visited the hostel in December 2018, Ms Boua explained that she had to close off the access to the river from her hostel because water levels in the Mekong were unusually high for this dry season month. Water levels have been transformed by efforts to regulate the flow through the upstream construction of dams, she explained worryingly. She added that her neighbour had to build a sandbag wall to prevent the rising water from going into her property.

About 150 kilometres north from the guesthouse is Muang Ngoi, a town popular for its scenic views of the Ou River and surrounded by misty mountains. The tourism businesses that depend on the river, especially its watercourse, are changing around here as well; public and tour boats that used to connect riverside towns along the Ou River have been disrupted by the construction of Nam Ou 3 hydroelectric dam in November 2017. Some service operators hope to resume normal business activities between Muang Ngoi and Muan Khua by using a combination of boats and vans (Conversations in December 2018).

Picture 2. A tour operator pointing out the hydropower dam location along the tour boat routes (source: author 2018)

The sense of risk is exaggerated by an overall decrease in the number of tourists coming to Laos. Some tour guides and guesthouse owners I met along the Ou River expressed their worries over their empty tours and rooms in December, which normally marks the beginning of the high tourist season for northern Laos. When I asked why, some people made connections between unusually heavy rainfall that triggered landslide accidents a few months earlier. One guesthouse owner mentioned the collapse of Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydroelectric dam in July 2018 that killed at least 40 people and displaced more than 4,500 residents.

According to her, “tourists are scared of coming here, because of the disaster a few months ago” (Conversations in December 2018).

No longer business as usual

Ecotourism, which constitutes a substantial part of the local economy in Lao PDR (Thomas, 2014), has long been recognized as one of the priority sectors by the Lao national government. Yet the construction of hydropower dams is not only damaging existing ecotourism businesses, but is it also realigning local perceptions of risk and adaption. As Ms Boua and her neighbour’s claims illustrate, local business owners are attributing their growing sense of risk to the altered and disrupted flows of the changing river.

In addition to the changing flows of the river, something else that is notable from these stories is the growing sense of risk attributed to the changing image of the Ou River and the riverside towns as tourist destinations. The image of a peaceful, 'untouched nature, where jungle covered mountains meet the mighty river' and 'timeless culture, where traditional ways of life are still practised by local people with pride' on the official tourism page is now fraught with tensions in popular online travel forums and blogs questioning the safety and feasibility of trips along the Ou River in the wake of dam developments across Laos. Yet the divergent development images of the Ou River do not just remain in development plans and tourism pages.

Picture 3. A view of the river and Nam Ou 3 dam from a tour boat (source: author 2018)

As large-scale water infrastructures have now become an integral part of rivers in northern Laos, it is no longer business as usual for the ecotourism sector that had depended on its flows and the heritage it used to represent. The growing tension between the two development strategies can be observed in everyday operations of the hostels and boat services along the Mekong and Ou rivers, as they try to find ways to continue displaying a pristine riverscape with hydroelectric dams in the picture. From the tour boat connecting Muang Ngoi and Muang Khua, the Ou River is paradoxically a source of energy production as well as an untouched nature for cultural consumption.

Surely, the changing riverscape is felt beyond the ecotourism businesses described in this post. Investigating these changes and their various implications on everyday life are one of the research objectives of the TECSEA project, Working Package Two (Water).

Works mentioned:

  • Hommes, L., & Boelens, R. (2018). From natural flow to ‘working river’: hydropower development, modernity and socio-territorial transformations in Lima’s Rímac watershed. Journal of Historical Geography, 1–11.

  • Thomas, F. (2014). Addressing the Measurement of Tourism in Terms of Poverty Reduction: Tourism Value Chain Analysis in Lao PDR and Mali. International Journal of Tourism Research, 16(4), 368–376.

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