VIENTIANE, Laos - The communist government of this hapless, landlocked country set a lofty goal for the year 2000: attract 1 million visitors with its "Visit Laos Year" initiative.
But 2000 turned into a disaster on every level, and even optimists believe Laos will need far more than a year to undo a generation of mismanagement.
With the government gridlocked and riven by political squabbles, the situation grew so serious this year that President Khamtai Siphandon warned senior officials in August that the country could disintegrate unless rival factions resolved their differences.
He suggested the ruling party consider reforming its radical policies to reflect today's "economic and political realities."
The first hint that this year would be tough came in March with a warning by several Western governments that banditry and an insurgency in the north made travel perilous. Then the aging fleet of 17 Russian- and Chinese-made planes flown by the national carrier, Lao Aviation, was deemed unsafe by most embassies.
If that weren't enough to keep visitors away, a string of unexplained bomb blasts struck the capital, with one injuring at least six foreigners in a restaurant and another killing a man at Vientiane's international airport.
Adding to the year's woes, the Malaysian and Singaporean airlines canceled their flights to Laos for lack of demand.
And a Cabinet minister, Khamsay Souphanouvong, left for New Zealand in an apparent defection.
Relations with Washington cooled after two Laotian Americans disappeared last year on the Thai border. And 60 Laotians launched an ill-fated attack in July on the Chong Mek border post in southern Laos and briefly hoisted the royal flag in the naive belief that the country was ripe for a popular uprising.
The abortive Chong Mek strike came as Prince Soulivong Savang, heir to the kingdom's throne, was on a monthlong tour of the United States to talk to Laotian exile groups and rally support in Congress for democratic reform in his homeland.
Although he denied any involvement, the attack served the interests of opposition and government forces. It enabled the former to say resistance was growing within Laos and gave the latter justification for its paranoia and obsession with security.
"Yes, Laos had problems in 2000, and these problems will lead to instability because of the communists' suppression of their opponents," Savang said in a telephone interview from Paris, where he lives in exile with other members of the royal family.
Savang, 37, who fled Laos in 1981 with his younger brother, Dhayavong Savang, on a raft that crossed the Mekong River to Thailand, said he would go home if democracy were restored, but would leave the monarchy's future up to the Laotian people.
The previous king, queen and crown prince, who was Savang's father, were taken to re-education camps after the Pathet Lao communists won power in 1975 and died or were killed in captivity.
There are, though, no indications the Pathet Lao - who came out of mountain caves to replace the monarchy a generation ago - have any interest in sharing power. Political analysts say the royal family might resonate with the estimated 700,000 Laotians who live in the United States, France and Australia, but has little apparent relevance to the more than 5 million Laotians inside the country, most of whom were born after the communists seized control.
The eight members of Laos' secretive Politburo have proved inept by any standard. Foreign investment in Laos has evaporated, hotels run at 30 percent occupancy in peak season, blackouts in Vientiane are common, human rights frequently are abused, and foreign assistance makes up 16 percent of Laos' gross domestic product and 80 percent of its public investment.
In the 1960s, Laos lived under the shadow of the Vietnam War, Savang said, "but people enjoyed freedom, civil servants received their salary, young people received standard education, health care was acceptable, the free economy system ran.
"What a pity. Due to the communist regime, the government missed the opportunity to develop Laos. The current president has called on Lao people abroad to participate in developing Laos. But without democracy, nobody will reply."
Not everyone remembers the 1960s as fondly. A bewildering array of factions fought each other for power and the CIA directed a nominally secret American war that made Laos one of the mostly heavily bombed countries in history, as the Pentagon tried unsuccessfully to sever North Vietnam's supply lines to South Vietnam.
The government made a stab at economic, but not political, reform in the mid-1990s and appeared to be making admirable progress. But Laos was one of the hardest-hit victims of Southeast Asia's 1997-1998 economic crisis and the Politburo reacted by withdrawing into what it perceived as the safety of its communist cocoon.