The View from Laos
We recently spoke to our man in Laos, Mark Steadman to see how the country has fared during the pandemic, what he misses most about leading tours and how he's been helping the community during this time.
The pandemic seems to have affected some countries in more severe ways than others, how has it been in Laos?
Laos’ zero-tolerance policy has, so far, spared us the spiralling case counts that our neighbours have experienced. On the flip side, it has meant lockdowns, restrictions on provincial movement and border closures. To date, we have had less than 1000 community cases and only a handful of fatalities. The current focus is on migrant workers returning from Thailand – with over 10,000 positive cases recorded at the border. Community spread has been curiously slow, possibly a result of the lack of testing - although some say that as Laotians have historically eaten anything and everything, they have already developed an immunity!
Outside the lack of tourists, how has Covid had a significant impact on your daily life?
I have been very fortunate to be able to maintain most of my daily routines. Restrictions on moving between provinces during the 2nd wave have meant I haven’t been able to change the ‘office view’ as regularly as last year! I’ve had to eat a few noodle soups in the kitchens of local restaurants too. Staying put for long periods has been challenging as I’d not stayed in the same country for a year since 1991. I wasn't in the same place for longer than 2 weeks in the second half of 2019, so this has taken some mental adjustment.
How have you stayed positive during this time? Have you taken up any new hobbies or projects?
Fortunately, I have been able to channel all my energy into Lone Buffalo, the English language and Youth Development project I co-founded in Phonsavan, northern Laos. The extended time on the ground has allowed us to develop new initiatives like a life skills programme for senior students, a girls football coaching programme and an exciting new Barrier-Free Learning concept bringing learning technology to local villages!
What do you miss most about welcoming travellers to your country?
Drifting along the Mekong at sunset, getting our newly arrived clients excited about the experiences ahead - with a gin and tonic, of course!
Have you been vaccinated? Has most of your community?
I had the 2nd AZ jab in June (ahead of my UK date!). Laos has double vaccinated around 20% of the population and has set a target of 50% in 2021. The challenge is now to get through, physically and mentally, to remote villagers, whose lives have barely been impacted by the virus.
How do you see the pandemic changing the way you lead tours?
Re-establishing trust between locals and visitors will need careful handling - as local people are a highlight of any Laos trip. Despite the virus’s local origins, an understandable wariness of freely travelling westerners has developed among some Asians.
Where or who are you most excited to see again on your tours once things return to normal?
My smiling local guide and driver when we go to the airport together to welcome our first group back to Laos. On the road - the sunrise from the UNESCO Heritage site of Wat Pho and the sun setting on the magical 4000 islands in southern Laos.
Is there anything you’d like to see foreign travellers do when they return – wear masks, not shake hands, stay outside of your community?
I don't anticipate tourists being welcomed to Laos again until there is a minimum risk of infection, in which case we’d follow government/WF protocols. Fortunately, the nop, prayer-like bringing of hands together is our traditional Covid-friendly way of greeting, thanking or showing respect. Should masks be recommended I’m hoping to see travellers bring reusable cloth masks.
When do you predict that foreign travellers - in any significant numbers - will be able to start returning to your country?
Everyone involved in the industry here has an opinion on when and how, although the Lao government has yet to make any kind of announcement. I am hopeful of running a trip in late 2022 and confident that by early 2023 my tours in Laos will be running regularly again.
If people want to help, are there any local projects that you're aware of - or perhaps work with - that you could recommend for people to support?
Ha – I’d obviously say Lone Buffalo! In 2020 and 2021 our revenue from the travel industry reduced by 75%. I’m very grateful that the WF foundation, Derek Moore Foundation, Selective and Explore have managed to maintain their support – as have clients who donate regularly. I think we should consider the impact of Covid on local guides, many of who have lost 100% of their income and still have families to support. I’ve been trying to keep their spirits up when I’m in Luang Prabang by bringing everyone together.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Once tours resume again, I’m looking forward to a heightened appreciation of how fortunate we are to be able to travel, experience cultures and contribute to local communities.