Laos’ world heritage enclave of Luang Prabang comprises over 120 sites of cultural and historic importance, all squeezed between a few kilometers of cobblestone alleys, ornate temples and picturesque hillsides at the confluence of two rivers, including the Mekong.
Thanks to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site recognition and regulation, including a ban on all advertising billboards, the cultural treasure has until now been well-preserved, winning numerous tourism-related awards for its lost-in-time feel.
But how much longer can the conservation success story be maintained?
China’s navigation plan for the Mekong envisions the construction of a new commercial port at Luang Prabang that will be able to handle 500-ton cargo ships. Those vessels will be much bigger than the small fishing and passenger boats that currently ply the waterway and will immutably change the town’s quaint, tourist-friendly riverside.
Details of the port plan are scarce, as are most state-led development projects in the authoritarian communist-run country. The project has been raised in Laos’ one-party parliament and is currently “under consideration.”
Thongpho Vongsriprasom, Laos’ former Minister of Agriculture, has warned that the demolition of rocks and rapids in the Mekong would speed up the river’s flow and waves caused by big cargo ships would destroy vital river banks. Only 4% of Laos’ land area is suitable for agriculture, most of it along the fertile shores of the Mekong.
Paul Chambers, a specialist of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and International Relations at Thailand’s Naresuan University, paints a grim picture of what may happen a in the next 10-15 years if the navigation plan is implemented:
“The rapid transformation of the Lao world heritage site will result in this cultural mecca being replaced by a Chinese commercial hub and the superimposition of Chinese cultural art and architecture across northern Laos,” he said. “Luang Prabang would end up as a new Chinese town.”
UNESCO’s world heritage status is conditional upon host countries adhering to management guidelines and rules that protect all conservation sites in accordance with the 1972 World Heritage Convention.
Lao provincial authorities are now considering sites in Luang Prabang to build a new bridge over the Mekong, as part of the construction of the China-Laos railway scheduled to be completed by 2021. But it’s not clear yet whether Chinese construction sites will be within Luang Prabang’s UNESCO designated preservation zones.
One of Asean’s poorest members, Laos is increasingly dependent on Chinese aid, investment and construction. China has recently helped the impoverished small country to build a national sports stadium, major roads, hotels, hydro-power dams and even ministerial buildings in the capital, Vientiane.
Luang Prabang authorities are arguably already in China’s thrall. They recently allowed China’s A-Cho Group Company access to public land around one of the country’s famous national landmarks, the spectacular Kuang Si waterfall. It’s not clear yet what will be developed in the area but locals have strongly criticized the deal on social media.
Nor is it clear that a port at Luang Prabang makes economic sense. Tourism contributes strongly to Laos’ increasingly services-driven economy, with fast growth in tourist arrivals helping to fuel gross domestic product growth (GDP) of 6.8% in 2016.
A 420-kilometer rail line connecting southwestern China to the Lao capital via Luang Prabang that started construction in December and be completed by 2021 will move freight and people more quickly and efficiently than the river route. The US$6 billion project is 70% owned by state-owned China Railway and 30% by the Lao government.
What’s less clear is how much Laos would lose if Luang Prabang, the cultural heart of the landlocked nation, had its World Heritage site designation eventually withdrawn by the UN due to unchecked development related to the proposed port.
World Heritage sites “belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located,” according to UNESCO, which has revoked its designation from other sites that it deemed suffered from uncontrolled urbanization and overdevelopment.
But while cultural ambassadors remind the Lao government that Luang Prabang’s preservation is an issue of global importance, it’s not clear how much autonomy Lao authorities really have to decide considering their increasing reliance on Chinese aid and investment.