As chief technical advisor for the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality (Lanith), Peter Semone’s goal is to help put a tiny Southeast Asian country at a competitive level in global travel and tourism. He shares his experiences in developing human capital and his thoughts on the future of tourism in Laos.
In Laos, hospitality and tourism are low on the totem pole.
Tell us a bit about Lanith and your role.
When the Luxembourg Development Cooperation brought me on, my development objective was, “To strengthen human resources in the hospitality and tourism industry in Lao People’s Democratic Republic.” That’s not daunting, is it? To develop the tourism industry for an entire nation.
How does the program work?
Lanith has a multi-day Passport to Success program for those already in the industry, and a two-year diploma program in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
As part of our program in Luang Prabang, we have The Balcony restaurant, as well as a meeting room and four-room hotel. The vocational schools in Laos can’t necessarily produce the students that the industry wants, so we serve as the middle school to give students the practical experience and interact with guests. I always say, it’s where the students can burn the salmon steaks and learn from their mistakes.
In a way, our institution is a factory. We have two years to put people through this factory and produce graduates who are desirable to the industry. Our goal is to get people jobs.
What was the thought process behind this whole endeavor?
In 2012, tourism in Laos earned US$500 million in export revenues. Compare that to Cambodia, which earned US$3.5 billion for a similar number of tourists. If positioned properly, tourism has the potential to earn Laos US$1 billion in export revenues per year. But, in order to compete at an equal level, Laos needs to work on reforming its education systems. There’s a lot of work to create human capital as a resource for the country.
How do you think Laos measures up to other ASEAN nations?
In terms of travel and tourism, the strong ASEAN nations currently are Indonesia and Thailand.
Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam have been off the radar. And Laos is probably the least competitive of them all.
Now that you have the ASEAN Economic Community, countries like Laos that were sitting on the sidelines now have to be integrated into this community of 10 countries.
What were some of the biggest challenges in establishing Lanith?
Getting people to embrace new approaches to education and training. Changing behavior and throwing out the ineffective curricula that were developed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and replacing them with more modern responsive approaches. Many countries are caught in approaches to the delivery and administration of education and training programs that were relevant in the 20th century.
A career in hospitality hasn’t always gotten a lot of respect. How are you getting around this mindset?
Yes, in Laos, hospitality and tourism are low on the totem pole. There’s a lot of misunderstanding of what kind of opportunities there are in tourism. We’re trying to show young people that this is an international and dynamic industry.
Southeast Asians have a very strong cultural education, where family and community play a very integral role. Sometimes, when you try to put formal education in that, there are gaps. That is all slowly changing with the influence of ASEAN, globalization and social media.
How are you getting the message out?
In my view, it’s all about embracing the youth through media channels that they are comfortable with. Lanith has been actively undertaking public awareness campaigns to improve the awareness of opportunities in tourism. We do this through active engagement on Facebook.
And as for their parents, we need to demonstrate that tourism is a growth industry and provides for a safe future for their kids. It’s still amazing in societies like Laos how much influence parents have on 18-year-old kids.
The rise of “celebrity chefs” has changed how people view that industry. Do other areas of hospitality need the same?
Yes, as an industry, we are missing those iconic characters beyond Richard Branson and Donald Trump. We do need some more heroes and role models who can bring positive attention to the industry.
Travelers looking for an “authentic” experience often fall in love with Laos. How can you hold onto that while developing tourism?
Luang Prabang’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site is both a blessing and a curse. There’s international recognition and opportunity. But finding the right balance is a huge challenge. Because of its location, we’re getting a lot of tourists from Western China. They’re high-spend visitors, but they come in hordes and they come certain times of the year. That’s when you start to notice the complex balancing act.
What issues have you run into so far?
There are cultural challenges. The monks do the alms giving several times a week, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s a parade, a tourist attraction. You lose a little of that authenticity. There’s the environmental challenge, particularly with the things that tourists leave behind. How do you manage it? Do you throw empty plastic water bottles in the Mekong River?
How are you handling that?
Unfortunately, in places like Laos, if it’s an inconvenient truth, it’s better to sweep it under the rug. There are systemic problems but they can be solved. If we want to get tourism in Laos and Luang Prabang to be more productive in creating more jobs it’s very important to keep up that public-private dialogue. Every month in Luang Prabang, we host a town hall with management from the leading hotels and restaurants.
What types of travelers should a destination like Laos be marketing to?
I don’t think people recognize the potential of millennials. There’s this general assumption that the boomers are the ones who have money and time to travel. There was also the assumption that Asians are the cheap ones and that has been turned upside down as well. If you talk to hotels and tour operators, they’ll tell you European boomers are the “cheap Charlies.”
But there is no doubt that the untapped demand of young Asians will create a massive flow of tourists in the coming years. And they will first quench their thirst for travel by visiting destinations in the region, which bodes well for ASEAN nations.
In my view, these people will spend money on quality experiences and therefore tourism companies need to tailor make programs that fit with the unique interests of this hi-tech, energetic group of people.
Photo credit: Lanith