There’s no doubt tourism has contributed to the growth and success of Ock Pop Tok. Visitors have also transformed Luang Prabang economy, creating jobs and improving livelihoods for many. While tourism has its economic benefits, it can also mean more trash, more traffic, more energy consumption, to mention a few. The giant piles of single-use plastic waste—water bottles, straws, food containers, bags, and the like—are piling up on the streets, in giant heaps on the outskirts of town and in rivers, ponds and streams.
The questions we want to ask ourselves and solve moving forward are: how do we make Luang Prabang a truly ‘sustainable tourism’ destination? We may have grand ideas, but how do we “walk the talk” effectively and meaningfully?
It’s not an easy road. It requires us to make tough decisions and to stick by our commitments. Fortunately, we are not alone! Last year, the Lao Ministry of Culture and Tourism launched the Sustainable Tourism Solutions Expo (STSE), which brought together businesses and individuals interested in sustainability. The high attendance across all sectors of the Lao economy,particularly in tourism, was a clear indication that we are all looking for solutions. This year, the Expo was even more exciting, with more creative thinkers and do-ers coming together to discuss problems and brainstorm solutions.
Unlike other countries who have access to resources, low-cost energy alternatives, sustainable solutions in Laos are homegrown, dreamed up and executed with lots of creativity and determination.
When prepping for this event, held in Vientiane in September, 2019, we explored three themes related to sustainability: Our Mission. Our Problems. Our Solutions. This helped us define our commitments, the challenges we face, the issues we have solved, and the issues we need help solving.
Then, we challenged ourselves to create a booth without using conventional signage, in other words without buying or printing anything. By recycling old wood, using simple thread and chalk for lettering, repurposing unused paint, crafting the elements of the “message” brought the entire team together, and it was energising to see weavers, guides, waitstaff and retail staff all pitch in.
This exercise showed us we may be onto something. Handmade, “slow” solutions are often overlooked, while technological solutions are seen as the optimal “fix”. Practical solutions could be as simple as using what is available and making behavior changes. For example, eliminating single use plastic in our Villa, reducing general printing, harvesting grey water, composting, using handmade saa paper, and partnering with travel agencies and hotels who practice sustainability.
We’ve done a fair amount—our textiles are created using slow, handmade, non-mechanised techniques and natural dyes; we serve a locally-based, farm-to-table menu at the Silk Road Café, including organic wines; and we eliminated all single-use plastic in Mekong Villa’s. Loong Tai, our in-house carpenter and “fixer”, is great about recycling wood, using and reusing what is already on hand. In fact just last month, we updated visual displays in our shops, and Loong Tai created new furniture and props by recycling And, all our locations feature a water “refill station” – for free!
Our challenges include energy use, water treatment, reducing plastic use in packaging, to name a few. Can we arrange a car-pool (or motorcycle pool) for our weavers and staff to come from the village? How do we get access to low-cost alternative energy sources, like solar? How we train our staff to use less plastic at home?
Unlike other countries who have access to resources, low-cost energy alternatives, sustainable solutions in Laos are homegrown, dreamed up and executed with lots of creativity and determination. Here are some creative things happening around town:
- Refill Stations
There are 25+ free water refill stations around town. Our shops in town and the Living Crafts Centre each offer travellers free water to fill up their reusable water bottles.
- Community clean up & awareness
We participate in monthly clean-ups around town. Picking up trash keeps the town tidy, but it shows our staff how much plastic is being used and thrown away. Seeing it firsthand, our staff is more conscientious about their own plastic use.
- Eco Plates & Containers
The folks at Nahm Dong Park, a natural reserve in the hills above Luang Prabang, have produced the nation’s first natural, biodegradable plates, bowls and take-away containers made from banana, bamboo and areca sheath (betel palm leaf). Prior to this, these types of materials were imported. Nahm Dong will begin selling these products to community members by the end of the year.
- Bamboo Straws
We’re on a mission to rid Luang Prabang of plastic straws. In the past year, more hotels and restaurants are opting for bamboo or steel straws. Local fruit shake stands still use plenty of plastic straws, and we are thinking up ways to steer them towards zero plastic use.
- No Single Use Plastic
We’ve gradually eliminated use of single use plastic – straws, bags, containers – across all our venues. However, we are not fully plastic free. We still store many products in plastic sleeves and bags to keep rodents and bugs out; and, we laminate signage as a means of protecting them from moisture and regular wear and tear. If you have suggestions, let us know!
We are approaching our 20th anniversary, and sustainability is top of mind. We have started walking the talk, and we want to pick up the pace. In 2020, we plan to convert use our into an interactive installation at the Living Crafts Centre. Part exhibition, part conversation starter, the installation will highlight sustainable solutions we are already implementing and explore new ideas and next steps. If you have an idea, email us here.