This article critically appraises and evaluates tourism strategies and heritage management in Luang Prabang, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, a Unesco-designated ‘world heritage’ city. Luang Prabang is widely regarded as one of the most significant heritage cities in Southeast Asia. The city is renowned for its Buddhist and royal culture and also its historic vernacular Lao, French, and Lao-French architecture. The city earned world heritage status in 1995, but since that time the boom in in-bound Asian tourism has put pressures on Luang Prabang’s authenticity and, for some, called into question the validity of its world heritage status. This article examines these substantial and wide-ranging pressures and argues that the growth in tourism and the treatment of Luang Prabang’s heritage are symptoms of broader regional processes of political and economic change, including the expansion of Chinese and Korean investments and the growth of intra-regional tourism. The authors argue that it is unreasonable to expect traditional heritage management mechanisims, including the world heritage listing, to be able to cope with the pressures on sites like Luang Prabang. The very least that is required, the authors contend, is an expanded understanding of the context in which heritage places sit, and the authors make a case that the cultural landscapes approach, combined with explicit concerns for intangible heritage and poverty alleviation, must be at the core of any strategy for long-term protection of the city’s cultural values.
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