Rebuilding a Sustainable and Resilient Tourism through Corporate Social Responsibility

December 16, 2021

Photo: UNDP

Exo Travel Lao PDR is among the many travel agencies that was seriously affected by COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 in Lao PDR, when international travel had been paralyzed. Duangmala Phommavong, Managing Director of Exo Travel Lao PDR, shared her experience in remodeling business to survive the COVID-19 crisis, and how Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has played an important role in her business transition.

Exo Travel Lao PDR believes in responsible tourism businesses that benefit local communities, protect the environment, respect local cultures and animal rights. These values are reflected in tourism products of the company and Duangmala ensures that CSR is integrated into their core business value, and translated into the company’s working culture. Duangmala mentioned, “genuine CSR does not only improve the branding and profit of the company, but also proves to be beneficial for all stakeholders. Some key actions include providing a safe and healthy working environment for personnel, promoting no elephant riding programs and conducting tours that do not invade the privacy of local communities”.

Since the first national lockdown in March 2020, the Lao PDR tourism industry has been severely impacted due to the closed international borders and restricted domestic travel. Back in 2019, the industry contributed 13.7% to the total GDP of Lao PDR, and created more than 114,000 jobs within the country. A recent Asian Development Bank (ADB) survey shows that three-quarters of tourism enterprises were closed during the lockdown, with 70% having to cut down the number of their employees. And as of May 2020, 90% of businesses in hospitality remain closed with no customers.

Exo Travel Lao PDR was one company that had to reduce around 75% of its staff to maintain the business. However, with a crisis management plan in place, the company could cushion the blow and survive their business transition. Additionally, the laid-off employees were able to receive support from the company with a social security scheme. At the same time, Exo Travel Lao PDR shifted from an international tourist oriented model, to provide domestic travel packages for in-country travelers under the “Lao Thiao Lao” Campaign to boost domestic tourism activities in 2020.

Duangmala shared that having a strong relationship with their quality suppliers enabled them to adjust quickly together with more cost-effective operation. In December that same year, the Investment Promotion Department, with the support from Poverty-Environment Action for Sustainable Development Goals in Lao PDR, launched a CSR Coaching for Champions in the tourism sector. Exo Travel Lao PDR was among the first volunteers to participate in the coaching session to strengthen the company’s CSR capacity and share their journey in inspiring other businesses in the local tourism industry.

Duangmala believes that the success of CSR derives from the strong commitments from the top management and supported by all stakeholders in the organization. Thus, she always positions herself as the example for CSR action, and re-enforces this value for everyone in the company. Everyone in the organization is willing to comply without feeling as if there is an extra burden.

Duangmala stated in the opening of the CSR coaching session that, “the CSR training is important for Exo Travel Lao PDR and our suppliers to understand the same concept of CSR in order to plan activities systematically”. This CSR training in Exo’s headquarter were participated by their suppliers and affiliated networks, including the Monument Bookstore. The teams developed two CSR action plans for Exo, including a reading campaign to promote reading among children by having bookstores as anchors for donating books to schools in the outskirt of Vientiane Capital. Tour packages to support pottery workshops and handicraft products in Luangprabang were also drafted and teams hoped to put these plans into actions once tourism has recovered.

Amidst the uncertainty faced by the tourism industry during COVID-19 outbreak, building a sustainable and resilient tourism is crucial for its stability in the long term. And CSR becomes more critical to promote sustainable tourism products. As we expect for the tourism industry to become more competitive post-COVID-19 globally, only quality tourism businesses will survive. Duangmala pointed out that tourism companies in Lao PDR must adapt through a more responsible business modality.

“We want to see more businesses adopt CSR perspectives into their business operations to enhance the image and increase the competitiveness in Lao PDR tourism industry. In this effort, international development partners can support the development of CSR criteria into the national tourism standard”, said Duangmala.

Despite many set- backs, the freeze in tourism also offers a unique opportunity in repositioning tourism in Lao PDR to achieve sustainability and resilience. Poverty-Environment Action in Lao PDR has developed tools to raise awareness, support initiatives, and policy recommendations for enabling implementation of CSR. The project will continue working with champions to inspire others to integrate CSR into their core business value, and rebuild as a sustainable tourism industry in Lao PDR.