Attempts by Laos authorities to limit the damage caused by the tourist craze of ‘‘tubing’’ — floating downriver in the inner-tube of a tyre — have had mixed success.
After a spate of tourist deaths on the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng, Laos, authorities from the capital have closed more than two dozen of the riverside and late-night island bars that are pit-stops for tubing tourists.
But two days ago, the river was still busy with more than 100 tubers. One bar was still serving drinks and organising volleyball matches but had stopped playing music. Others operated from Eskis on the sandy banks of the river, mostly for takeaway beer only.
Six tourists have died this year, including three Australians, and it is believed more than 20 died last year as a result of activities — often alcohol or drug-fueled — on the fast-flowing river.
In the past ten years the pretty town of Vang Vieng, surrounded by steep limestone karsts, has turned into a “backpacker mecca”. The rules that govern capital Vientiane's bars, including closing at midnight, have not applied here and floating down the Nam Song River in a large tractor-tyre innertube, stopping at the legion of jerry-built bars on the waterside for free shots or drugs, has become a popular pastime.
During high season it is estimated up to 500 tubes are hired for 55,000 Lao Kip ($6).
Guesthouses and restaurants abound and tourists' bad behaviour, drunkeness and cultural insensitivity to standards of dress, have been well-documented by foreign media.
“The Government has indeed decided to take action," Rik Poone, a tourism expert with the Asian Development Bank in Vientiane, told Fairfax. "The prime minister visited Vang Vieng after increased reports about the excesses and deaths in the media and pressure from development partners.”
Police arrived from Vientiane to enforce the closures because local tourism police had been turning a blind eye — and a profit — for too long, according to sources.
New regulations, which are not posted anywhere in town, read “You must wear a life jacket.” However, none on the river, apart from some kayaking Koreans, were doing so and a staff member at the tube rental asked customers, “Can you swim? Then no need."
While tubing continues, bar owners and other locals say the crackdown has been bad for business. September is typically a quieter month anyway but Lee, 26, a Vientiane native says he's never seen it so quiet. This is his eighth visit in about five years.
“Now every one and owner of guesthouse is in shock. (It's had a) big impact.”
He sees tourism development in the town as a positive. “It can take the people to have a better life and a good job. (But) if they administer Vang Vieng like this I am sure in the future no tourist will come here.”
Perth man Steve Sampson, 60, has been in Vang Vieng for more than four years, running the Aussie Bar. He says the community is struggling and that publishing, then enforcing new safety regulations would be preferable to simply closing businesses.
“Safety's the most important thing,” he said. He suggested that bars flouting regulations could have their licenses revoked, and that a group of businesses could organise a better safety system to allow tubing to continue.