Empty Vientiane Street

I know Southeast Asia is not alone on this, but the shoddy business websites have got to go. I am not a webdesign master, but this is not acceptable. While visiting Vientiane over the past weekend I wanted to get a massage. On my in-flight magazine I saw an ad for Papaya Spa in Vientiane. When I got to my hotel (their website being a step up), I tried to navigate through Papaya Spa’s site. Boy, was I led astray.

All I wanted to see was the price menu. After giving up on that, I simply tried to find a map of the physical location. Also impossible. I really wanted to go to a spa, though. So I actually copied and pasted their address into Google Maps— but I was still confused. You think a spa mentioned in the Bangkok Airways in-flight magazine would have a bit more polished website. I ended up scouring over a map of Vientiane in an attempt to find the street name. With no luck, I gave up; I never made it to a spa that weekend.

Wouldn’t maintaining a clear, easy-to-operate website for your business make sense? Would it not bring in much greater return than the time and cost to have one built? I wonder how many tourists like myself went to Papaya Spa’s site and became so discouraged that they just gave up altogether.

Questions like this make me wonder what part websites play in attracting tourists. Is there a correlation between the two? And could better web design boost tourism? I’m going to conduct a mini case study using Thailand and Laos. We all know Bangkok ranked number one this past year in tourism. There have been articles across news sites. And even I have been tweeting about it!

So let’s compare the two countries official tourism sites. Here is “amazing” Thailand. And here is “simply beautiful” Laos.

Gosh, I genuinely feel sorry about the quality of Laos’s site and want to help them. Looking past the tourism homepage of the two country’s, Thailand’s tourism Facebook page has 394k “likes” while Laos has 1.1k. It is very obvious that Thailand’s site is way better–and I am no web design specialist. This does make sense, however, seeing that Bangkok is the hottest tourist destination in the world this year. So, yeah, I would expect it to be better.

But which happened first? Was Thailand’s tourism website sleek and up-to-date before the tourism boom? Or after an initial increase in tourism did the site improve? Unfortunately, I could not really find any data on this matter. But I wonder if Laos had a better tourism authority website, along with other tourist-related sites, could it experience a tourism boost? With that tourism increase more money would be pumped into the economy, which would in turn better infrastructure, services and education (upgrading the HDI score) and thus improving quality of life for the country as a whole.

Or is it the other way around: a country advances things like health services and education (simply put increasing HDI score), then finds itself with better standards of living. Infrastructure and services then improve, creating a more appealing country. Therefore more foreigners come to visit and then comes the better websites.

But my questions are too specific and Google is not providing many answers. Taking a step back, what must come before a polished website? Internet access, of course. And I found an organization that dealt with providing internet access to those in developing counties– the World Wide Web Foundation, where:

“We seek to establish the open Web as a global public good and a basic right, ensuring that everyone can access and use it freely.”

They have an interesting project dubbed “The Web Index” which measures how well 61 developed and developing countries around the world are harnessing the benefits of an open and universal web. The index incorporates various political, economic and social indicators. Unfortunately, Laos is not one of the 61 countries. Nor is Cambodia, which shares an the same HDI score as Laos in addition to a physical country border–meaning it could have served as a fairly accurate stand-in.

Thailand is part of the index, however. Out of the total 61 countries, it is ranked 37. Regionally Thailand is ranked ten with Indonesia and India ahead, which somewhat surprises me. In any case, check that out if you wish to learn more. While it did provide some insight (such as people in Thailand not being able to harness as many internet benefits as I previously believed) it still doesn’t exactly answer my questions regarding website development, tourism and improving overall the HDI score. Aka people’s lives are tangibly better.

With no backing evidence, I do think great website quality can attract more tourists. I believe it to be a really obvious answer. There can be a certain ripple effect whereby better websites lead to increased FDI and then tourism. Still, I want to know the correlation between HDI, tourism and website design/clarity.

I can’t stop thinking about the drastic difference between Laos and Thailand, specifically Vientiane and Bangkok. The distance between the two capitals is a mere 647.3 km. That’s like 400 miles to all you Americans and less than the distance from Boston to DC. But when arriving in Vientiane from Bangkok you feel like you could be thousands of miles away. Maybe you even stepped into a time machine and went back twenty years.

I am coming to realize that my weekend in Laos maybe changed my life. And I am racking my brain trying to think of a country I have visited that appeared less developed than Laos.

Hold on, I have to look at some statistics…

While thinking over all the places I have been that could compete I have came up with: Cambodia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Vietnam. So I plugged these countries into the UNDP data explorer along with Laos and Thailand. I also included two other countries where I have vacationed, the Bahamas and Turkey. (Even though I recognized they are more developed than the others– just for an interesting comparison). With the UNDP data explorer it is really simple to compare all sorts of indices and pin point specific countries. So I played around with the data for some time. Unfortunately, not all the indices have data for every country.

The data featured below includes the composite HDI value on the y-axis (which for some reason the label appears in the upper-left corner) and internet access per 100 people on the x-axis. The data goes to year 2010. What I find shocking is that while Cambodia and Laos’s HDI index is the same for that year (.53), internet users per 100 people is higher in Laos. Cambodia has a recorded 1.3 people with internet access for every 100 while Laos has 7. On the whole one can see that the trend is basically the higher the HDI score, the higher the internet user rate.

(If the graph is not showing above, follow this link. Reloading the page may also do the trick)

I also wanted to compare the 8 countries across a different index. I chose HDI again on the y-axis and this time “MPI: Intensity of deprivation” on the x-axis. Both Costa Rica and the Bahamas did not have data in this area. Also, it appears that many developed economies are not included in this data set (like the US). Still it is interesting to see that out of the selected countries, Laos is the highest up on the x-axis– meaning most “intense deprivation.” (By clicking on the question mark next to the x-index it explains how the calculations are derived.)

(Again if the chart above is not displaying, click here. Reloading the page may also do the trick.)

Even though I have many unanswered questions, I will leave you with this. But one last word– it seems that with higher human development comes higher internet usage. (I mean, duh Laurence. Children in sub-Saharan Africa who don’t even have access to water aren’t going to be surfing the web on an iPad.) But must an improved HDI come first, then increased internet access? Could web access lead to a better HDI score? Or maybe the two grow alongside one another?

Just some food for thought. Enjoy the data!


Image Credit – An empty street in Vientiane, taken by me.


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