Trains along the Laos-China Railway have been packed with passengers in recent weeks as Chinese tourists have surged into the country following Beijing’s decision last month to lift COVID-19 restrictions.
The train stations in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and particularly Boten station – which sits on the border with China’s Yunnan province – have faced overcrowding.
“There have been a lot of people waiting at the station,” said one passenger who uses the rail line frequently for business purposes. “They have to stand in a long line, and if you want to board quickly, you have to book your tickets two to three days in advance.”
Tickets to Luang Prabang – the once royal capital of Laos that was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1995 – have been fully booked, mostly because of tourists, the passenger said.
A rail employee at Vientiane station estimated that about 60 percent of passengers are Lao, about 15 percent are from Thailand and about 15 percent are from China, with the remainder made up of European tourists.
Other Chinese tourists have been crossing the border in their own vehicles, in rental cars or in tour buses since Beijing lifted covid restrictions on Jan. 8.
A Lao employee who works with a tour company in Vientiane told Radio Free Asia that people are asking for at least one more train trip per day. Currently, the railway runs just one train between Boten and Vientiane, the employee said.
Long ticket lines grow longer
The U.S.$6 billion high-speed railway connecting the two Communist neighbors opened in December 2021. It promises to offer land-locked Laos closer integration with the world’s second largest economy.
But until recently, most of the trade has been one way – with China exporting its machinery, auto parts, electronics and consumer goods. Laotian exports were hindered by China’s strict COVID policies at the border.
Another issue has been the purchasing of train tickets, which must be done in person at rail stations. The long lines from last year have grown even longer over the last three weeks.
There are no plans to increase the number of daily trips, a rail official told RFA Lao.
“We normally only add more trips during the big holidays such as New Year’s or on national days,” the official said.