The Akha Experience – lessons from a finally failed successful project

The case of the project Akha Experience in Northern Laos shows an example of a project that started promising and successful over several years. Nevertheless it was a failure at the end, as several basic determinants for a long-lasting sustainable development were not taken sufficiently into consideration.

In Luang Namtha Province in the mountainous north of Laos one can find large virgin forests that are under threat by international timber companies or the change to rubber plantation. Tourism was one of the chosen tools to protect this richness, making also use of the large diversity on rather isolated ethnic groups, their cultural richness and traditional lifestyles. Of the 68 different ethnic groups in Laos more than 20 live in the province Luang Namtha amongst them the Akha as the largest groups. Many of those groups subsist at sub-poverty levels in a non-cash economy – so making quick money with selling the timber is alluring.

© Christian Baumgartner
© Christian Baumgartner

The Nam Ha Ecotourism Project of the UNESCO and National Tourism Authority of Lao PDR 1999 to 2002 seeks for a tourism that avoids overusing natural resources and the ‘Akha Experience’ by the German GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) and the local tourism agency Exotissimo complemented the project. The Akha Experience offered tours for 3-10 days. 8-10 tourists at one time can experience first hand biodiversity and the specific Akha culture, beginning with an orientation session with information of the benefits of the villagers and what makes the tour environmentally friendly and sensitive. The tours are led by two registered local village-based guides with English language skills and local knowledge, dressed in Akha clothes. 
The lodges, run by local hosts, are in design and construction traditional with some added
comforts (e.g. hot water or solar power electricity).

© Christian Baumgartner
© Christian Baumgartner

Not all of the villages decided to take part in the project, which at the end turned out to be one of the problems. The participating villages fixed village coordinators, guides, hospitality staff, cooks, housekeepers and handicraft sellers. Between 1999 and 2006 170 ecoguides were trained in guiding principles, English, ecotourism, first aid, regional history and specific village culture. Exotissimo (Vientiane, Luang Prabang and international offices) sell the tours. From the fees 11% went to a Village Development Fund, 9% to costs like transport and management, the rest was paid to the villagers for services (excluding handicrafts and donations). Participating villages were motivated and understood the necessity to protect the forests.

© NFI / respect
© NFI / respect

Although the National Tourism Authority included the project into its National Ecotourism Strategy and Marketing Plan, although the feed-back by tourists was positive and the villagers welcomed tourists as symbolic end of isolation, and although 68 household could increase their income from annual US$20 to over US$100, it seems that the project failed now after 9 years.

GIZ stopped technical advice and trainings 15 month after start of active selling. Several of the not-involved villages did decide to sell the forest, which was then cut or changed to rubber plantations causing a loss of shade and landscape attraction. To find trekking routes without visible destruction for the tourists became difficult. Additionally more and more villagers changed from their traditional costumes – which were one of the main attractions of Muang Sing area – to modern outfits. A declining interest of foreign visitors was the result and led to Exotissimo decision to stop the offer of the Akha Experience end of 2013.

Lessons learnt:

• (Eco)Tourism can contribute to protection of natural resources and poverty alleviation, but only if the whole region shares the same goals and strategies. A patchwork of different development strategies can be counter-productive.

• ‘Progress’ is being visited as the villages gain their first contacts with national and international market economies, but tourism is just one facet of development. Tourism needs to be seen as more than just another economic sector promising economic gain for outside investors.

• Marketing is crucial; the inclusion of local tourism products in national marketing strategies is one of the key factors for success. But tourism products, communication and marketing should not exclusively base on traditional forms of culture.

• Sustainable development needs time. The support by donor organisations often is too short to create long-lasting local ownership. Contacts between indigenous population and tourists stay rare and on a superficial level, but should be based on respect and same eye-level.

The development of Community Based Tourism can – if well planned and implemented – provide indigenous communities with a motivation to protect their natural environment. In the case of the Akha Experience mainly the lack of regional closeness led to a failure.

Christian Baumgartner



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Further readings:

Mascow, Susanne (2013): Potentiale für Public Private Partnerships im Tourismus – Möglichkeiten der Kooperation zwischen Reiseveranstaltern und lokalen Gemeinden in Entwicklungsländern, Grin Verlag

Oula (2005): Trekking in Nammat Kao and Nammat Kai – two Akha communities

Shi, Weiyi (2008): Rubber Boom in Luang Namtha. A Transnational Perspektive.

Suntikul, Wantanee (2012): The effects of tourism development on indigenous populations in Luang Namtha Province, Laos. In: Butler, Richard; Hinch Tom (2012): Tourism and Indigenous Peoples. Issues and Implications. Butterworth-Heinemann

UNESCO Bangkok (2008): Impact. The Effects of Tourism on Culture and Environment in Asia and the Pacific. Alleviating Poverty and Protecting Cultural and Natural Heritage through Community Based Ecotourism in Luang Namtha.

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Dr. Christian Baumgartner studied landscape ecology and is Secretary General of Naturefriends International (www.nf-int.org) since 2005. 1995 he founded respect – Institute for Integrative Tourism and development (www.respect.at). Besides his work as lecturer for Sustainable Tourism in Vienna, Krems (A), Siders (CH) and China he was member of the (former) Tourism Sustainability Group within the EU Commission, DG enterprise and member in several national and international tourism related advisory boards.

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