Today, the Lao government and people are proud and delighted to have received this honourable prize, which demonstrates the great achievements of tourism development in Laos. Laos offers impressive tourist attractions and services for tourists from across the world.
I would like to take this opportunity to praise and express my sincere gratitude to the European Council on Tourism and Trade and all tourists for highly valuing Lao tourism and selecting Laos as the World's Best Tourist Destination for 2013.
I would like, especially, to welcome Prof. Dr Anton Caragea, Chairman of the European Council on Tourism and Trade, and his delegation to Laos to attend the ceremony and present the award.
The Lao PDR is diverse in languages, cultures and customs, which have been inherited from our ancestors over thousands of years. The country is rich in spectacular natural resources as well as having a long and civilised history and well-known archaeological sites, which further boosts Laos' tourism potential. With great effort and a high sense of responsibility by the Party and government since the 4th Party Congress in 1986 outlined a comprehensive renovation policy to open up for foreign cooperation, tourism has played an ever more prominent role in the country's socio-economic development. The government has defined policy and taken action to develop and promote cultural, natural and historical tourism. To facilitate the growth of tourism and services, the government has done its utmost to develop infrastructure such as building roads to link all regions across the country as well as connecting with neighbouring countries. Over the past 4-5 years, the government has exerted utmost efforts to increase the number of border checkpoints to integrate with countries in the region and the world at large. At present, the Lao PDR has 23 international checkpoints, of which 21 can issue visas. Laos has four international airports (Wattay International Airport, Luang Prabang International Airport, Savannakhet International Airport and Pakxe International Airport). Visas have been exempted for citizens of Asean member countries. Laos has also granted visa exemptions to citizens of Japan, Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Russia, Mongolia and Luxembourg. The authorities have redefined that visas issued at checkpoints permit the holders to stay in Laos for 15 days, reduced from 30 days previously. According to Prime Ministerial Order No. 15 issued on June 20, 2006, these visas can be extended by the provincial authorities instead of only by the Vientiane authority as before. In addition, the government grants three-month visas to foreign citizens of Lao origin who acquire visas from Lao embassies, which can be extended for another three months. However, visas issued at border checkpoints grant only a two-month stay with another two months of extension. After implementing the aforesaid tourism development and promotion policy, the tourism sec tor has grown rapidly. From 1990 to 2012, foreign tourist arrivals have risen by an average of 20.36 percent annually. In 2012, Laos registered 3,330,072 foreign tourists generating total revenue as high as US$513,576,784. By 2013 the number of tour operators had risen to 275 companies. Hotels and guesthouses have also increased and in 2012 there were 3,526 hotels and guesthouses offering 35,857 rooms. Laos now has 1,493 official tourist sites comprising 849 sites of natural interest, 435 sites of cultural interest, and 209 historical sites.
The Lao PDR shares similar characteristics with many other countries, such as different and diverse traditions and customs among its multi-ethnic people. There are also impressive archaeological and historical sites such as Luang Prabang, the historic town and living world heritage site, and Vat Phou Champassak, which is another world heritage site dating back to the 12th century. In addition, the historic caves of Viengxay (deemed to be the birthplace of the Lao PDR) have become an open-air museum, while the Plain of Jars is expected to be listed as a world heritage site in the near future. The Lao PDR also has rich and beautiful natural sites suitable for development as ecotourism attractions and green industry without smog or hazardous pollution, which will become new relaxing sites to impress visitors from the region and the world.
Community-based eco-tourism programmes have become Laos' unique feature and have great potential because they give visitors the chance to get in touch with and taste nat ure, as well as the everyday life of local people and the customs practised by the Lao multiethnic people. To translate the tourism development strategic plan for 2011-2020, the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism in collaboration with provincial authorities have carried out nature-based tourism activities with the participation of local people by making use of the local potential and conditions of each province. Such activities were first initiated in 2000 in Luang Namtha province, called the ‘Community-based Eco-tourism Programme'. Similar programmes now exist in all 17 provinces involving 40 districts and 160 villages, and have generated income directly for local people.
Because of these progressive great achievements of the Lao tourism sector coupled with the impressive progress made in socio-economic development across the country, Laos has been praised by tourists and friendly countries across the world, justified by the fact that Laos has been awarded many honourable and impressive prizes as follows:
In 2008, the New York Times named Laos as one of 53 countries it described as the world's top tourist destinations.
The world heritage site of Luang Prabang received the Top City Gold Award after being voted the world's top tourist destination by Wanderlust, a UK based travel magazine from 2006 to 2008, and again from 2010 to 2012.
The Community-based Eco-tourism Programme in the Nam Ha Protected Forest Area in Luang Namtha province also won an award for ‘best poverty alleviation project' and ‘best services' given by the United Nations Development Programme. And today, we feel proud and honoured that the European Council on Tourism and Trade awards Laos with the World's Best Tourist Destination Award for 2013. This honourable prize will make Laos even more popular among tourists across the globe, and will drive the development of the tourism sector in our country.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to Professor Dr Anton Caragea, President of the European Council on Tourism and Trade, for highly valuing the development of Lao tourism. I agree with his comment that “In the 21st century, tourism has become an important bridge for friendship and relations among nations in the world; it is also a way to promote peace and mutual understanding and lead the way to a good future.”
The Lao PDR stands ready to continue to develop the tourism sector to contribute to establishing and enhancing friendly relations among nations in the world to make a joint effort to promote peace and mutual understanding, together entering into the proper future of development under the sky of peace, friendship and sustainable cooperation.
On this auspicious occasion, I would like to wish Party and state leaders and honourable Lao and foreign guests participating in this ceremony good health, success in your noble tasks, happiness and prosperity, and further contributions to the tourism development of our country for progressive success.
I would like, especially, to wish Professor Dr Anton Caragea and high-level delegates from the European Council on Tourism and Trade good health, success in your noble tasks and happiness, and to further contribute to promoting Lao tourism in Europe and across the globe.