Editor's Note — Brian King is professor and associate dean at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He is editor-in-chief of the journal "Tourism Culture & Communication."
(CNN) — Golden temples, Mekong River cruises, mighty waterfalls and nearly two dozen national parks. On paper, Laos has it all.
But the land-locked Buddhist country welcomed only around 4.2 million visitors in 2016 -- a paltry achievement compared with its southeastern Asian neighbors. In that same year, there were 32 million tourist arrivals in Thailand, 26.8 million in Malaysia and over 10 million in Vietnam -- all countries boasting long coastlines of gorgeous beaches.
Meanwhile, Cambodia is famed internationally for its Angkor Wat "Tomb Raider" temples, and recently opened-up Myanmar is growing its tourism industry.
Laos, it seems, just isn't on the radar for most international travelers headed to southeast Asia, aside from young backpackers. But things could be set to change.
A high-speed rail link between Laos and China expected to open in 2022 has poised the country for a game-changing influx of Chinese tourists.
Why visit Laos?
CNN's Road to ASEAN visits the Mekong Tourism Forum in Luang Prabang to find out how this region is coming together through tourism.
A former French colony, Laos retains the nostalgic charm of an earlier era -- note the stylishly restored villas in the historic Old Quarter of the former trading post and now capital Vientiane.
Unlike the car-choked metropolises of Bangkok or Hanoi, Vientiane's low-key boulevards invite a walking pace with their wandering Buddhist monks.
It's the upside of Laos' undeveloped economy: Vientiane's status as national capital hasn't prompted the frenzied high-rise construction that has been evident in Ho Chi Minh City. The motorbikes are there but, somehow, with less intensity.
In addition to its heritage, Laos also offers mystique.
The so-called Plain of Jars sees clusters of giant Iron Age stone structures scattered across the hillsides around Phonsavan in northern Laos. Nobody knows who created them or why, although theories abound.
That the bizarre jars have survived is itself a miracle. The area was heavily bombed by America during the Vietnam War and only a few are today open to the public while unexploded cluster bombs are cleared.
But the quintessential Laos postcard scene is probably Luang Prabang. Set in the mountains of Central Laos, the ancient town -- named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 -- is the former home of the Royal Palace and capital of a kingdom of the same name.
Trouble in paradise
Laos' main problem is its lack of the three Ss -- sun, sand and sea.
The country is making a bold attempt to overcome this natural deficit by becoming the first foreign country using Chinese technology, equipment and investment to connect with that giant nation's domestic fast and vast rail network.
Vietnam and Myanmar will eventually be connected to China's rail network, too, but Laos looks likely to be the first to do so using Chinese technology. Critically, that means Laos and China will have a common rail gauge on both sides of the border making traveling between the two countries seamless.
Furthermore, if all goes as planned, Laos will be the first stop on one route of the Pan-Asia Railway, which aims to connect China with all of Southeast Asia, with trains traveling at speeds of up to 125 miles per hour, carrying both passengers and cargo.
The route from Kunming to Singapore will take just 10 hours.
Laos' flight connections with China are improving, too. A direct link operated by Sichuan Airlines launched between Kunming and Vientiane in May, while a Hainan Airlines route to Haikou, the capital of Hainan Island, began last year.
Keeping its cool
To be a tourism powerhouse, Laos will need to welcome Chinese, and other, tourists without sacrificing its unique, peaceful atmosphere. It would do well to learn from the mistakes of its neighbors.
In Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, for example, the local tourist authority had to create etiquette pamphlets to educate visitors on how to respect the local culture and temples, in response to incidents involving Chinese nationals in 2015.
Laos also needs better facilities -- a change that's already underway. The 32-room President by Akaryn hotel opened in a restored neoclassical villa next to the Presidential Palace in Vientiane in February.
And in Luang Prabang, Azerai, a new venture from Aman Resorts' founder Adrian Zech, launched in February, while the Rosewood Luang Prabang is scheduled to open its luxury tented camp and villas before the end of the year.
While these properties are a step in the right direction, other tasteful, high-end hotel options are generally lacking.
In addition, more professional service skills are needed to complement the natural hospitality of the Lao people. Still, many will see that underdevelopment as part of Laos' charm.
If so, now could be the last chance to experience a rare unspoiled part of Southeast Asia before it joins its neighbors in the high echelons of bucket-list destinations.
Editor's note: Brian King is professor and associate dean at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He is editor-in-chief of the journal "Tourism Culture & Communication."