December 20, 2016

Into the dark: exploring Laos’ cave tourism industry

By: Jennifer Meszaros, Focus ASEAN, December 12, 2016
Photography by:  Gabriele Stoia

Photo Credit:  Gabriele Stoia

Home to some of the most complex rock formations in Southeast Asia, Laos looks to cash in on cave tourism.

Since the late 19th century, the geological wonders of Laos have captured the interest of foreign explorers, not just for its striking mountain ranges, fertile Mekong River floodplains and waterfalls – but also for what lies beneath the surface. Countless caves have been revealed within the towering karst massifs and limestone mountains that dominate much of Laos’ picturesque landscape.

While many of these subterranean beauties have been transformed into worthy tourist attractions, others are in a continual state of exploration. For fast-developing Laos, whose major economies are mining and tourism, the caves represent an opportunity to unlock the potential of swathes of the landlocked country’s remote areas to the world. As the sport of spelunking gains traction, isolated villages are looking to cash in on this rise in visitors. Yet as experts have pointed out, great care needs to be taken in balancing the complex needs of locals and the conservation of the cave’s delicate ecosystems – one wrong step can cause irreversible damage – with the commodification of Laos’ natural assets.

“Cave tourism can have a highly positive impact on local employment and development, and a very large positive impact on the reputation of Laos, but not all caves are suitable for tourism,” said Claude Mouret, a French geologist who has spent the last 25 years researching and documenting caves in Laos.

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