For welcoming eight tourists — the maximum allowed in a -single group — on a two-day trek, a village receives about US$135, or more than a third of the ticket price, said Chittaphong Chanthakhoune, a local tour agent.
Hundreds of similar projects are being set up elsewhere in the sparsely populated country, one of the poorest in the world.
While it is not the answer to all the villages’ problems, Laos has at least avoided the pitfalls seen by its neighbors, where tour operators bring hordes of tourists to villages without consulting the locals.
Signs on the walls of local trekking agencies give advice to foreigners: Take off your shoes before entering a home, respect sites of worship and do not take photographs without asking the subject’s permission.
The villagers for their part have been educated about the needs of their visitors and ways to improve hygiene.
While it lures avid adventurers to its steep-sided valleys and villages lost in the middle of the forest, Laos has also equipped its capital, Vientiane, and the ancient city of Luang Prabang with a solid tourism infrastructure, capable of accommodating a rising number of visitors.
Tourist arrivals in the Communist nation have risen from scarcely 5,000 in 1991 to more than 2 million in 2009, according to official figures.
However, the eco-tourism boom “will only be sustainable if both sides understand what is important for each other,” Schuhbeck said.