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Formation of a rural backpacker enclave in a developing country: Case study of Vang Vieng, Laos

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Tourism is one of the most important sources of foreign currency for developing countries, and landlocked Laos, the least developed country in Southeast Asia, is no exception. Under the socialist regime, however, the government of Laos forbade foreigners to enter the country. The development of the tourism industry therefore, did not start until the government adapted the New Economic Mechanism for economic liberalization in 1986. To promote the tourism industry, the Laotian government needed to develop legislation regarding the entry of foreign tourists. Since the early 1990s, the Laotian government has implemented various tourism policies, such as issuing tourist visas for international tourists, abolishing the domestic travel pass, and launching the Visit Laos Year 1999-2000 campaign. The promotion of tourism by the government resulted in an increase in foreign tourist arrivals. In addition to historically known tourist sites such as Vientiane, the capital city, and Luang Phabang, a World Heritage Site, new tourist sites in rural areas of the northern region were created by free independent travelers (described as backpackers). The most notable rural tourist site is Vang Vieng in Vientiane province. In the 1990 s, the number of backpacker arrivals in Vang Vieng rapidly increased after the completion of a bridge across the Mekong River and with the Visit Laos Year 1999-2000 campaign. The existing small commercial area has since given way to more tourism-related facilities used by backpackers rather than by the locals. Furthermore, tourism-related facilities have expanded to adjacent areas. Isolated concentrations of tourism-related facilities in central Vang Vieng can be called a "backpacker enclave," where many travelers, especially backpackers, come and stay. Additionally, many tourism-related facility operators come from other areas, including overseas, to establish businesses in this area, and therefore this space can be understood as a social space that is completely different from the adjacent area where local farmers live. In Vang Vieng, not all the locals are pleased with its transformation into a tourist site, because an increase in backpackers who seldom try the local food do not contribute to the rise in sales of local agricultural products, and new social problems such as drug use and prostitution have increased. Furthermore, since the locals do not know how to cook Western-style meals and also do not speak English, tourism-related facilities in Vang Vieng offer few job opportunities for them. Although the regional formation of such backpacker enclaves has provided economic benefits to tourism operators, most farmers have received little benefit from it. In conclusion, backpacker enclaves in rural areas of developing countries like Laos create new spatial binaries: backpacker enclave versus paddy fields, tourism operators versus farmers, and tourists versus locals. In addition, it has an adverse social influences on farmers and the economic gap between tourism operators and farmers has widened.




Yokoyama, S. (2007). Formation of a rural backpacker enclave in a developing country: Case study of Vang Vieng, Laos. Geographical Review of Japan, 80(11), 591–613.

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