Seeking to compete with neighboring countries in the Mekong region, such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, the Laos Ministry of Foreign affairs has announced that the country will introduce an e-visa service starting in June that will enable foreign visitors to apply for visas online. The new policy has three primary goals: (1) to make Laos more “tourism friendly”; (2) to reduce the waiting times at immigration checkpoints; and (3) to cohesively collect inbound tourism data that will allow the country to better understand the make-up of its international visitors.
The new e-visa service is expected to be online by June 15th and all international visitors to the country will be able to apply online for a single-entry 30-day visa. Tourists wishing to extend their visas beyond the initial 30-days will need to reapply for additional visa. The prices for the e-visas have not been finalized, but are expected to be priced at the same rates as visas-on-arrival, which currently cost $30 ~ $42 USD, depending upon citizenship.
The new e-visa system is part of a package of incentives that the government has introduced to attract more tourists from abroad to the country. While tourism is growing across the Mekong and Southeast Asia region, Lao’s tourism industry has been in decline as arrivals from different primary markets have declined during the last several years.
In 2018, international tourism arrivals were estimated at 4.1 million visitors, an 8.2% increase over 2017, but almost 20% below government projections of 5 million visitors. Tourism experts note that the increase of travelers in 2018 was due to an increase of Chinese “group” travelers. Lao tourism officials are keenly aware that putting too much emphasis on a single market, such as Chinese, places the industry in a vulnerable position should there be any human or natural disaster involving Chinese citizens.
Officials point to the dramatic decline in Chinese tourism to Thailand last year, after a boat accident in Phuket left more than 40 people dead. One month after the incident, tourism from China had dropped by 12%. With Chinese tourism estimated to contribute almost $22 billion USD to the Thai economy, a 12 ~ 15% decline in Chinese tourism means the country suffers a massive financial decline.
Soun Maniyong, Director General of the Laos’ Ministry of Information Culture and Tourism’s marketing department, welcomed the new e-visa scheme and said that once the service goes online, it will be very convenient for foreign tourists to apply for an entry visa. Though visas on arrival have been provided for foreign visitors, those who have never been to Laos before were still often unsure whether these services are actually available.
Maniyong also noted that with the new e-visa service, Laos follows the steps of Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam in granting easy online visa procedures for short-time visitors; and that even Thailand has introduced an e-visa to replace the visa-on-arrival for some nationalities.