With his windows open on a late February night, Kevin Allen is enjoying the end of the cool dry season in southern Laos. It’s 25 C outside and one of the few nights that Allen, a fifth-year U of G hospitality and tourism management student, isn’t socializing with new friends at one of the riverside restaurant patios.
“On average, I meet a Canadian once a week,” he says. “Canadians are far more common in Laos than Americans, though, and there are lots of Germans and Brits.”
This semester, Allen, who is set to graduate in June, is doing tourism research while teaching English and doing an internship at the Arawan Riverside Hotel in Pakse, a city of 200,000.
“I wanted to complete my final semester in Laos because I knew it would be a big challenge that would allow me to draw on all the lessons and experiences I’ve had at Guelph over the last five years,” he says.
As a tourist destination, Pakse is not as developed as cities in northern Laos, but government support is helping in its efforts to market itself to ecotourists, says Allen. It was an interest in ecotourism that first brought him to Pakse in 2009 for the World Ecotourism Conference and to conduct research with Prof. Steve Lynch, Hospitality and Tourism Management. Their work led to a co-authored paper that Allen presented in October at the annual conference of the Canadian chapter of the Travel and Tourism Research Association.
Their work also led them to travel to northern Laos with a contact from Guelph to teach English to a group of monks at a Buddhist college.
“It was the first time a native English speaker had come to teach them,” says Allen. Normally, the monks would walk an hour from home to take lessons.
Besides learning about a religion and lifestyle that were much different from his own, he was surprised to find some of the creature comforts of home at the temple.
“Some of the monks had digital cameras and cellphones,” he says, noting that he still receives text messages from the monks from time to time with simple English greetings and phrases. “In some ways, the monks live a simple life, but then you see the technology and you see how the modern world is affecting them.”
Since January, Allen has been continuing his research while working to advance the goals of the Arawan Riverside Hotel.
“The hotel is struggling and is in the process of reopening,” he says. “It’s trying to attract more of the European and North American market. At the moment, the hotel relies heavily on group tours from Thailand.”
Located on the Mekong River, the Arawan is close to many popular attractions, including the Konpapeng and Li Phi waterfalls, the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins and Wat Phou, an ancient temple complex that has been listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO. Many ecotourists also enjoy guided treks and elephant tours through the many national protected areas, says Allen.
“It’s a very different experience here because Laos has gone through years of civil conflict and didn’t start welcoming foreign tourists until the early 1990s. The Lao are very welcoming, but it took a bit of time for people to let down their guard with me. No foreigner had ever come to Pakse to work with them. They also have challenges because it’s a developing nation.”
Arawan wants to be a five-star hotel but doesn’t have the resources to do so, he says.
“Tourists often want a certain kind of experience that my colleagues here can’t accommodate. Because the Lao economy is still developing, the hotel has to import about 90 per cent of its supplies from Thailand. That adds big challenges and expenses to running the hotel.”
Allen has also experienced leadership from a unique perspective during his stay.
“The hotel is operated by Laotians, who traditionally are laid-back and do things at a slower pace. It’s interesting to see the differences between them and the hotel’s Thai managers, whose leadership is much more direct. Both cultures highly value relationships, and they work together well to provide the best guest experience they can. It takes some time for them to warm up, but once they get to know you, they welcome you like family.”