A new $ 6 billion Chinese-built railway line opens in Laos this week, bringing hopes of an economic boost to the reclusive nation, but experts question the benefits of a project that has seen thousands of farmers evicted from their land.
The 414-kilometer (260-mile) highway, due to open on Dec. 3, took five years to be built as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which funds infrastructure projects to expand Beijing’s influence in the world.
Struggling strawberry producer Anouphon Phomhacsar is hoping the new railroad will revive his business.
His farm typically produces up to two tonnes of heart-shaped berries per year, but the pandemic has hit the 2021 harvest hard.
It currently takes three to four hours for Phomhacsar to ship his strawberries to Vientiane by road, but he hopes the new railway will cut that delivery time in half.
And he says it will also be easier for tourists to travel to camp under the stars and pick berries.
“In the future, foreign tourists coming to the farm could number in the tens of thousands,” he told AFP.
The rail route will link the Chinese city of Kunming to the capital of Laos, with big plans for the high-speed train that will eventually cross Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore.
Laos, poor in infrastructure, a reclusive country ruled by Communists of 7.2 million inhabitants, previously had only four kilometers of railroad tracks.
But now red, blue and white high-speed trains will accelerate along the new line to up to 160 km / h (100 mph), crossing 75 tunnels and 167 bridges, stopping at 10 passenger stations.
– Economic boost –
Although it only recorded dozens of Covid cases until April, Laos’ economy suffered a pandemic – economic growth fell to 0.4% in 2020, the lowest level in three decades, according to the World Bank.
Hopes of a rebound in 2021 have been dashed – Laos has locked itself down as it has recorded around 70,000 infections in the past eight months.
And while the railroad could boost tourism, freight and agriculture, according to a World Bank report, the government needs to undertake substantial reforms, including improving border clearance processes.
“The new railway is a major investment that has the potential to boost the Lao economy and allow the country to take advantage of its geographical position in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia,” AFP told AFP. Sombath Southivong, Infrastructure Specialist at the World Bank.
The tourism industry is in desperate need of a pick-up after the pandemic caused an 80% drop in international travelers in 2020 – 4.7 million foreign tourists visited the year before.
Young pre-pandemic nomads have crowded onto buses in Vientiane for the four-hour journey to adventure capital Vang Vieng – a journey that will now take around an hour by train.
The city, which has a former CIA airstrip, was known for backpackers who misbehaved at jungle parties before it became an eco-tourism destination.
But kayaks, river rafts, zip lines and hot air balloons have emptied of late.
Inthira – a boutique hotel nestled on the banks of the Nam Song River – has gone from full occupancy to just a trickle of domestic travelers on weekends, chief executive Oscar Tality said.
Tality hopes the railroad and reduced travel times will give the industry a boost.
“Along the way, people will see wonderful mountain views and cross bridges and tunnels. It will be a wonderful journey for those who take the train,” Tality told AFP.
– White elephant? –
Despite local optimism, some observers in Laos are concerned about the long-term viability of the project.
“The problem for Laos is whether its economy (…) its private sector is able to take advantage of this transport system,” Greg Raymond, professor at the Australian National University, told AFP.
Two-thirds of Laotians live in rural villages and work hard on the land, and the minimum wage is around $ 116 per month.
“When you look at the juxtaposition of this ultramodern railroad and the countryside it traverses, it’s very striking. We wonder if Laos will be the beneficiaries? Raymond said.
The project has already left some 4,400 farmers and villagers in shock after being forced to cede land.
Many faced long delays in receiving compensation or received insufficient amounts, the Lao Human Rights Movement said in a report.
“The compensation rate is very low. If you ask the villagers to move, how can they afford new land? Laotian MP Vilay Phommixay told parliament in June last year.
But for others, it’s all on board.
“There is great anticipation … there is a source of pride for the people of Laos,” Tality said.
ton-lpm / pdw / dan