The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), Digital Traveler ~ Asia Pacific eNewsletter, September 2006 www.ecotourism.

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Buddha Cave – Ecotourism Potential in Khammouane Province, Lao PDR By Graham Harper, North by North East Travel Services, Thailand / Lao PDR Khammouane Province in central Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) is a unique, yet relatively unknown tourist destination. Blessed with magnificent limestone mountains, dense forests and crystal clear rivers, it is a promising ecotourism destination. Lacking infrastructure, however, Khammouane receives fewer numbers of visitors than other Lao destinations. The Buddha Cave, rediscovered just two years ago, holds promise – not only as an anchor for further ecotourism development, but also as an effective poverty alleviation tool. In April 2004, Mr. Bun Nong, a local villager searching for bats, a local delicacy, spotted a small cave about 15 meters up a sheer cliff face. Thinking it worth an investigation he climbed up and entered the narrow opening. Turning on his light, he came face-to-face with a large Buddha statue. Shining the light around the cave he realized he was in the midst of over 200 Buddha statues. The news of this incredible discovery quickly spread and the cave is now the province’s most popular tourist attraction with over 200 people visiting every day. The statues are 400-600 years old and were placed in the cave for safe keeping during one of the many conflicts that occurred throughout the Mekong area. The cave and statues are now valued as important Lao national treasures. With the assistance and encouragement of the Khammouane Provincial Tourism Authority, the villagers have been able to effectively manage and protect this valuable asset. The Netherlands Development Organization (SNV) has been an active player in this process, providing advisory assistance to the local authorities and villagers on how to develop and protect the attraction in a sustainable way. The sudden increase in the visitor numbers, however, has stretched the capacity to effectively manage waste and other unwanted impacts, including ground water contamination and deforestation. On the other hand, the local community has yet to fully exploit the potentials of the new site.

Villagers and SNV advisor, Jan Burrows, recently made an assessment of the business opportunities at the site. It was concluded that lack of microfinance limits locals’ ability to develop spin-off ventures and take full advantage of the attraction. In September 2006, SNV microfinance specialists will again meet with villagers to find a way forward.

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The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), Digital Traveler ~ Asia Pacific eNewsletter, September 2006 www.ecotourism.org

This is an exciting time in Khammouane. One can only hope that this great opportunity to develop a major tourist/religious attraction is a catalyst for investment in other ecotourism opportunities that directly benefit and are managed by local communities. NOTES: Graham Harper is an educator and advocate of pro-poor sustainable tourism development. North by North East (www.north-by-north-east.com) is a specialty tour operator dedicated to responsible tourism, community development and voluntourism. www.north-bynorth-east.com REFERENCES: Potts, R. The Hidden Valley, Conde Nast Travle: www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/detail?articleId=5453 Burrows, Jan, New Cave Discovered Near Tha Kaek, Lao PDR, North by North East Newsletter: www.north-by-north-east.com/articles/07_04_3.asp Burrows, Jan,The Buddha cave Khammouane province Lao PDR, presentation to Leeds University, June 2006.

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