Mekong Tourism Forum – Prosper with Purpose

June 19, 2017
Hilary Kilpatric

In early June Luang Prabang hosted the Mekong Tourism Form 2017. The motto of the forum was “Prosper with Purpose” so the discussions centered around how to grow tourism in a responsible, sustainable, way. Six countries are members of the Mekong Tourism group and all six (plus a few additional countries) sent delegates from the industry. The member countries are Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.

It was inspiring to have experts in town from UNESCO, the Asian Development Bank, the Asia Foundation and more. The Forum was structured as a multi-venue conference so the 350 delegates got to see the town and smaller venues were able to showcase their locations. The general sessions were held at the Central Bank building here and then breakout workshops in the afternoons were held at various venues around Luang Prabang. Many doubted that we could pull off a multi-venue conference, but it was a huge success!

We hosted a session promoting Women-Led Enterprises at our Living Crafts Centre. Sonomi Tanaka, Chair of the Gender Equity Group at the Asian Development Bank started off the session with an overview of the challenges and opportunities that the tourism sector offers in relationship to women’s empowerment and employment. The tourism sector employs high percentages of women in the region, but few have positions of power. Ock Pop Tok is a great example of a tourism enterprise that is led by women, run by women, and works to empower women.

Next Jo and Veo gave a brief background about the story of Ock Pop Tok, how it was founded, it’s mission and values, and how these are realized in the company on a daily basis. We wanted to make the session fun and interactive. We also wanted the delegates to have a chance to interact with the women behind the scenes, the weavers and employees. So we broke the session up into 8 working groups.

Each group consisted of an artisan, a translator, and delegates from the forum. The artisan led the group in creating a small craft while the translator facilitated the discussion around 5 key questions with the goal of having the delegates learn the artisans’ point of view.

  1. How does Ock Pop Tok achieve its mission?
  2. How did the artisan come to work at OPT? And what impact has OPT had on their life?
  3. Does the artisan think tourism has a positive effect on their community / lifestyle…if so what…
  4. What are negative sides of tourism for the community? Ideas to change that.
  5. What does that artist think about OPT’s policy to support / empower women?

The sessions were fun and interactive and the discussions were lively. Delegates who work on the business side of tourism enjoyed learning from the artists about their views and getting an inside track from the actual community members whose lives are affected by tourism.

Some key take aways from the session were that the artists believe that tourism is good for their community because it fosters respect for and pride in cultural traditions, which in turn helps to preserve and sustain these traditions. It also offers community members opportunities for economic growth and employment. However, tourism also leads to an increased cost of living sometimes pushing locals out of the area in exchange for businesses. They also felt that some aspects of their culture are put on display and sold in a way that does not maintain respect for the culture, specifically the way that the monks are seen and objectified here in Luang Prabang.

One of the biggest benefits to the artisans of working at Ock Pop Tok is the opportunity to earn a regular income. Before being employed at OPT they would weave, without knowing where they could sell their products. Now they know that when they produce a quality weaving, Ock Pop Tok will pay for this weaving. This consistent stream of income allows them to send their children to school and pay for other necessities like better nutrition for their families. We also provide health insurance for the weavers, which is a benefit that most artisans do not receive. Most of all they enjoy the respect that they receive from being a valued member of a team, getting to travel and share their culture through their artwork with other people around the world.

One of my favorite stories that demonstrates just how Ock Pop Tok empowers women is the story of Mone. Mone is from the Katu ethnic group and was originally a part of our village weavers program. The Katu people live in Southern Laos (and Vietnam) in Sekong, Champasak, and Attapeu provinces. Mone is from the Champasak Province and came to Luang Prabang with the village weavers program on a scholarship to learn business skills and study and originally stayed at the center. Thanks to the support from OPT and the programme, Mone now has her own business in Luang Prabang selling her Katu weavings made using a back strap tension loom.

Overall the Mekong Tourism Forum was a well-executed inspiring event. We had the opportunity to show people many of the wonderful attractions that Luang Prabang and Ock Pop Tok have to offer. It was also a good opportunity to network with people in the industry and strategize about how to move forward and “Prosper with Purpose.”