Laos, a land-locked country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, recently opened its first Canadian consulate office in Richmond.
The office was set up in March near the Canada Line to raise the profile of the country and enhance its partnership with Canada.
Previously, Canadians who needed to contact the consulate of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic had to reach out to its embassy in Washington, D.C.
“We’re preparing for the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) 2024 summit, which Laos is the chair for, so we felt that it’s the right time to open an office here in Canada this year and start promoting trade and building our relationship with Canada,” said John Phanthoupheng, honorary consul of Laos to Canada.
Although Canada and Laos, which has a population of about 7.6 million people, established diplomatic relations in 1974, compared to some other ASEAN countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore, Laos has kept a much lower profile in Canada.
In 2022, bilateral trade between Canada and Laos was valued at $43.5 million, around 0.1 per cent of the trade value between Canada and ASEAN members in total, which was nearly $41 billion.
Phanthoupheng said he hopes the opening of the new office will help advocate for Lao business and investment opportunities in Canada and increase trade and business engagements between the two countries.
The office will also provide services to the local Lao population and tourists interested in visiting Laos – it doesn’t provide visa services but can offer guidance regarding travel to Laos.
“My goal is to make sure that we have a megaphone to announce that we are here. We want to help the local [Lao] nationals and also promote the hospitality of Laos. We want to promote tourism in Laos and also business partnerships between the two countries.”
Growing ecotourism offers business opportunities
The GDP of Laos in 2022 was recorded at US$15.72 billion, ranked 130th in the world, according to the World Bank. Despite that, Phanthoupheng said there are many opportunities in Laos for B.C. businesses, especially in the ecotourism area.
“Ecotourism is one of our main attractions. We have the world’s tallest tree houses and it’s called the Gibbon Experience – you can go hike and stay in this beautiful treehouse, and then you wake up and the gibbons will be around the area,” said Phanthoupheng.
The large number of tourists in Laos, which can be the same number or greater than the domestic population, provides many business opportunities for international investors, he added.
“Tourists need accommodation, tour guides and food. In addition to enjoying the traditional cuisine of Laos, tourists also look for alternative restaurant solutions to dining, so there’s an opportunity for multinational corporations such as McDonald’s, A&W and Subway to do business in Laos,” he said, adding that there are no such brands in the country yet.
“And tourists would require certain things that we may not have, so there’s the possibility of importing salmon and other items from Canada to Laos, to ensure that the tourists that go into the country have these products.”
To encourage foreign investment, the Laos government has set up special economic zones where businesses in the zones can operate tax free for a number of years.
There is also potential for imports to Canada from Laos, a country that specializes in beer, coffee, hand-crafted items, tea and other products, and opportunities to bring more students from Laos to study in Canada. Laos is also one of the biggest hydroelectricity producers in Southeast Asia, he added.
“Markets are opening slowly. We need to develop and we are looking for investors to go in there and help us develop.”
Setting up the office in Richmond
Phanthoupheng, a long-time Richmond resident and businessman originally from Laos, said he chose Richmond as the home for the new office because of the convenient location and the fact that it reminded him of his hometown.
“I felt Richmond was more attuned to the Lao culture that I believe was much more Asian based. It also reminds me of Laos where there’s water running to the ocean and it just felt more like home,” he said.
“Our office is not a typical office – it’s very warm. We wanted to represent a persona when someone comes in, they feel comfortable and warm. And that’s what Laos is about – it is about hospitality, it’s about being very receptive and wholesome people.”
Phanthoupheng said he also has a goal to raise funds in Canada to build a school in Laos every year.
For those who may not be familiar with Laos, he described it as a very peaceful country.
“It’s landlocked by five different countries so we’re influenced by different regions. It’s still underdeveloped, but it’s slowly developing – people are still riding their scooters or bicycles, and we need a lot of development,” he said.
“It’s a very charming country. For example in Luang Prabang, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can wake up in the morning and 100 monks walk by and you give food to them. It’s a very lovely practice that most countries don’t do anymore.”