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Tourism Threatens Historic City Known as 'Soul' of Laos

Tourism is bringing economic benefits to the Laotian city of Luang Prabang, the spiritual, religious and cultural capital of Laos for centuries. But with commercialism on the rise, some are worried the town is losing its identity.

Nestled deep in a Mekong River valley, Luang Prabang was cut-off from the outside world by decades of war and political isolation. A fusion of traditional Lao dwellings, French colonial architecture and more than 30 monasteries, the whole town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995. The United Nations agency described it as "the best preserved city of Southeast Asia."

That put Luang Prabang on the tourist map and since then the number of visitors to the town has soared from just a few thousand in 1995 to over 300,000 today.

With property prices rising on the back of the tourist influx, many local people sold their properties to outside developers who turned them into internet cafes, restaurants and guesthouses.

But while tourism is generating income and jobs, some residents are worried that the town is in danger of losing its identity.

"Here, the conservation of the architecture has been, roughly speaking, successful but conservation of the soul of the city is now the big threat," said Francis Engelmann, a writer and a consultant for UNESCO who has lived in Luang Prabang for 12 years. "Most of the people who love Luang Prabang love it because it's a very special way of living, a culture, a religious place, and this is under threat because what is surviving is only the most commercial parts of it."

Longtime Luang Prabang resident Tara Gudjadar is a consultant with the Laos Ministry of Tourism. She says that mass tourism is changing Luang Prabang in both good and bad ways.

"Tourism is a force for economic change in Luang Prabang - it's really transforming the lives of many, many people here," she said. "They see opportunities, you know, through tourism that they might not have seen before. However, there are changes happening in the social fabric of Luang Prabang with people moving outside of town, or becoming more commercially orientated, rather than simply sort of, family-orientated."

With local people selling up and moving out, some monasteries have been forced to close because many newcomers do not support the monks, who rely on the community for food.

Another source of discontent is tourist's lack of respect for the town's religious traditions - most notably the daily alms-giving ceremony where monks collect food offerings from the faithful.

When the monks leave their monasteries every morning they have to negotiate their way through a fusillade of flash photography and videocams.

But giving alms is a solemn Buddhist ceremony, says Nithakhong Tiao Somsanith, head of the Puang Champ Cultural House which is trying to preserve the town's cultural heritage.

"The meaning of the giving [of] alms early in the morning is the practice of meditation in Buddhism, and humility, and detachment. It's not a show - it's every day life for the monks," he said. "And so we need to have respect. It's not a safari, the monks are not the buffalo, the monks are not a monkey troupe."

Tourists should stay away from the alms giving ceremony, says Francis Engelmann.

"If you are not a Buddhist, if you don't believe the truth of Buddhism or if you are not part of this religion, don't do it! Look at it from far, quietly; respect it, as you would respect a Christian ceremony in a church - or in a temple - in a Western country," she said.

More outsiders mean more outside influences, and some residents are worried that Luang Prabang's young people are losing their identity, says Tara Gudgadar.

"People get worried about the social mores changing, you know, with tourists and foreigners coming in," she said. "I would sort of argue that it's not necessarily the foreigners that are changing that, but just generally the globalization of the town. Tourism is bringing in money and people are obviously much more connected to the rest of the world now than they were 10 years ago."

Throughout Laos, tourism was up an astounding 36.5 percent in 2007, compared to 2006, with more than 1.3 million visitors in the first 10 months of the year, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association.

And while the global economic crisis could reduce those numbers in the short term, experts say that the numbers of visitors to Luang Prabang will continue to grow over time.

Whether that is ultimately a good or a bad thing for Luang Prabang remains open for debate. However most people here agree that urgent measures are needed if the town is to protect the unique culture that draws in so many tourists in the first place.