Lodged in Laos
Former Puebloan helps to expand ecotourism in Southeast Asia
By AMY MATTHEW
Sompawn Khantisouk (left) and Bill Tuffin run The Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant, an ecotourism lodge in Luang Namtha Province, Laos. Tuffin is a former Puebloan who has lived in Laos for 14 years.
"We always had this idea of doing a guest house, and Pawn's parents had this land by the river," Tuffin said during a recent trip to Pueblo. "It was just a daydream and before I knew what was happening . . . "
Khantisouk put his degree to use, designing buildings that matched the local style and used natural materials, but were comfortable enough that visitors would enjoy staying for several days. The Boat Landing opened in December 1999 with two bungalows and a restaurant, run by Joy Khantisouk, that serves simple Lao meals. "The whole idea is that tourism can help the local economy," Tuffin said. "But you need to do it in a sensitive, planned way. Don't make the (local) children beggars - do something that benefits the community."
The Boat Landing contributed roughly $47,000 to Luang Namtha's economy last year through use of local services and vendors, he said. That represents about 75 percent of the lodge's annual expenses.
Khantisouk and Tuffin weren't even aware of the term "ecotourism" when they opened the guest house.
"We thought it was just nature-based tourism," Tuffin said.
In early 2000, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) began a national ecotourism project in Laos and invited Khantisouk to take part in a six-month training program in Vientiane, the capital city.
"I thought it would be interesting," he said. "For three months, I didn't know what I (was) doing."
"There was a lot of synergy between us and the program," Tuffin said. "We were actually a model for what they were trying to do."
The Boat Landing has become a member of several ecotourism organizations. One of those, Green Globe 21, requires travel and tourism operations to maintain specific environmental and social standards in order to be certified. Tuffin said ecotourism businesses have a "triple bottom line" to monitor: economic, ecological and social.
"Your decision process is different," he said.
The two continue to educate local residents about how tourism can benefit them and the town without harming their way of life.
"Sometimes they think, ‘Why do (people) come here?’ " Khantisouk said.
"If the locals think about tourism and what they want to do, they want to go to a city, or the ocean," Tuffin added.
But acceptance of the idea is growing. Several businesses already are seeing how the lodge's success is extending to them: In contrast to the situation that exists between many hotels and local business owners in tourist areas, The Boat Landing does not charge any fee for referring customers.
"(We're) a bridge between the tourists and the local people," Tuffin explained. "The boatmen say if it wasn't for The Boat Landing, they'd be out of business."
Khantisouk and Tuffin are considering adding more nature tours to their list of services; Khantisouk already is a lead guide for the Nam Ecotourism Project. They're also in the process of creating a cookbook that will feature Joy's recipes.
The Boat Landing is located on the bank of the Namtha River in Luang Namtha, Laos. The successful ecotourism business opened in 1999 and is the brainchild of Laos native Sompawn Khantisouk and former Puebloan Bill Tuffin.
There are no plans to expand the lodging capacity: "We want to keep the family feeling," Khantisouk said.
Tuffin said he doesn't know how long he'll stay in Laos. When he first arrived, he was one of only 25 Americans in the country, he said; now there are about 1,000.
He's acclimated to the Lao language, customs and food now, and has plenty of access to outside information via the Internet and satellite TV.
"It would be a big change to come back here," he acknowledged.
For now, there's plenty to keep him busy overseas. He and Khantisouk are in the United States to pick up a group of 17- and 18-year-old students, who will fly back to Luang Namtha with them for a 40-day stay. It's not your typical teen-age vacation, but it is an indicator of how word is spreading about The Boat Landing - something Tuffin is pleased to be part of.
"It's been very, very successful," he said. "It's a positive experience for both visitors and the local people."
For information about The Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant, visit the lodge's Web site, www.theboatlanding.com .
COURTESY PHOTO/BILL TUFFIN
A visitor from the United States relaxes on the porch of one of The Boat Landing's bungalows. The high tourist season runs from November to February, said the lodge's marketing director, Bill Tuffin.