Ecotourism in Laos
For the summer of 2016, my fieldwork was set in North East Lao PDR at the Nam Et-Phou Louey (NEPL) National Protected Area. This protected area is roughly 4,229 km2 and is home to a number of endangered species such as the tiger, gaur, Sambar deer, and white-cheeked gibbon. Wildlife Conservation Society, an INGO aimed at “saving wildlife and wild places,” is the main actor involved with the conservation and protection of NEPL’s wildlife and biodiversity. What initially sparked my interest in researching this area was the launch of an ecotourism program in 2009 for viewing wildlife. This program is a Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) scheme that aimed to conserve wildlife and provide an additional source of income for rural villagers. At the time, this ecotourism program was the only way for foreigners and Lao citizens to officially enter the protected area. Though in 2016, WCS created two new ecotourism treks that entered different areas of NEPL, providing tourism-generated income for more villages. Due to the unpredictability of wildlife seen on tour in these areas, WCS implemented infrared camera-traps at different locations in the protected area to passively photograph animals for ecotourists to see during their scheduled tour. After learning about this, I decided to fly out to the Lao PDR to test these new tours and to begin interviewing villagers and employees working for the project.
During my first month in the field, the tour company I had previously worked with was invited, along with two other tour companies, to do an official survey of their latest program: The Nests. To take advantage of this opportunity, I also scheduled a tour of their flagship program: The Nam Nern Night Safari. Gaining this type of access early on in my fieldwork was due to my previous employment experience at Tiger Trail, a widely known tour company based in Luang Prabang. The WCS team was delighted to have us along to take photographs and interview villagers on camera, including our use of a drone for aerial imagery of the surrounding landscape.
While participating on these two tours, I had to put on two different hats. I was responsible for taking photos and writing up marketing material for Tiger Trail, and I also planned to interview local employees about the program and its purported benefits. My colleague and I took photos and interviewed employees on film. The end result of this experience, including three additional weeks of post-production work, was a 3-minute film aimed at promoting ‘nature’ in Laos and wildlife inside the protected area.
The title sequence, “We Love Nature,” may be tongue-in-cheek for many political ecologists, especially those critical of the false nature-society dichotomy. However, this dualism is unfortunately common and continuously perpetuated in the marketing of a destination such as the Lao PDR for the tourism industry. The video was not created to be a critique of project or protected area, but as a promotional video to attract international tourists. Moreover, this video helps validate what many people perceive the Lao PDR to be — a country with an abundance of ‘nature’ and ‘wildlife’.
Critiques aside, it was an insightful opportunity to be in two contrasting type of positions as I investigated this ecotourism project, reflecting upon these types of representations of Nature during my fieldwork.