Asia, the New Europe

February 21, 2011
Eric Anderson, MD

,
Nancy Anderson, RN

Tourism experts predict that Asia will become the top travel destination in the world by 2015. Bookings to Asia hit a record in 2010, says one travel consortium, and air fares to Tokyo, Singapore and Shanghai are on the rise.

Photography by the authors.

“Asia will become the top travel region in the world by 2015,” says Abacus International.

Busy doctors may not recognize the name Abacus, an Asian consortium of eleven of the continent’s leading airlines, including Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines and top-rated Singapore Airlines. Abacus is also backed by U.S.-owned Sabre, the global leader in travel related services. Sabre got into travel in the 1960s by building the first computer reservation system. (In the old days when travelers used travel agents -- and those days may be returning -- the boxy computer the agent was perched over was usually linked to Sabre.)

Sabre says its mission has not changed over the years. It is still “to connect people with the world’s greatest travel possibilities.” Abacus, of course, knows those people. It has them as passengers.

When travel sophisticates talk -- travelers should listen.

The original entry point to South East Asia for tourists was Hong Kong. They came first by ship to what was one of the greatest seaports in the world. Arrivals by air by Pan Am clipper seaplane followed, then other airlines came -- landing on the Kai Tak airport on the mainland was an adventure in itself until it was replaced on Chek Lap Kok near Lantau Island.

So what are the experts saying? That, for many of us, a future trip will likely be to the Far East. And maybe we should get there before the mobs start arriving.

Abacus bookings to Asia hit a record in 2010, up 11% from the previous year and even higher than the pre-recession bookings of 2007. Business fares are already on the rise: Tokyo (up 7%); Singapore (8%); and Shanghai (up 9%).

“The Asian travel industry has shown its resilience in its quick recovery [from recession],” says Robert Bailey, President and CEO of Abacus. “Asia Pacific is now a key global hub for both corporate and leisure travelers.”

Singapore is arguably the most successful city-state on any continent. Raffles, its signature hotel, built in 1887 and rebuilt on a better site in 1899, is where visitors playing pool in 1902 were once horrified to confront a Bengal tiger in the billiard room. The bartender developed the famous Singapore Sling drink here around 1910. In fact, the hotel has such a history it even has its own museum.

Danny Kondic, appointed Vice President of Channel Management at Abacus last month, agrees. Those spokespersons are, of course, biased. Asia is their turf. But most travel professionals agree -- this is going to be Asia’s century.

Says Kondic, “Before Singapore, I lived in Malaysia and Hong Kong. I simply enjoy how Asians really love their food…as well as the lifestyle that you can enjoy here — exciting and action-packed yet demure at the same time.”

Demure is indeed the word. There is a sweetness here to the way hotel and airline staff greet their guests, the manner shop owners receive their customers and the way musicians, as here in Cambodia, play their instruments for visitors. The streets bustle but the restaurants are oases of calm.

Asked what does this expanding Asian tourist capability mean for travelers? Bailey replies: “New places, natural scenery and affordability. We are spoiled for choice in Asia when it comes to holiday destinations. On a personal note, [I find] the quality of service and accommodation here in Asia adds the final icing on the cake. The diversity of cultures; accessibility and range of travel carrier options for travelers to choose from means that travel to the region is increasing at breakneck speed.”

There’s a lot to see that is different in this continent and some of it is confusing. How, for example, can Thailand have such a decorous response to visitors and respect as Buddhists for animals particularly elephants, yet its museums show such gruesome exhibits, with those gentle people waging furious battles on the backs of their beloved elephants?Yet those who have traveled in South East Asia are not surprised at the enthusiasm tourism professionals have for what is happening here. Questioned about the competition from other regions, Bailey says, “Led by a slowing China and a growing India, in what has been aptly dubbed as ‘slowing dragon and crouching tiger,’ Asia is well equipped and set to take the leap forward in establishing its dominance of the travel industry.”

The biggest changes may be in Vietnam, a country the size of Italy with 80 million people who have only recently moved up from bicycles to scooters. The windows of shops in Ho Chi Minh City -- the locals actually prefer the old name Saigon -- have many of their signs written in English. They are confident about their future. Even in Hanoi, as in this photograph, a young man can contemplate what is ahead for him with confidence. He overhears a remark from a group of US tourists, and replies in faultless English, “You may indeed see impoverished areas in my country as you can in Appalachia in yours, but come back in five years to each and which area do you believe will still be impoverished?”

Would Vietnamese prefer Americans to stay away? It was, after all, a hard-fought war. Ha Phan, guide to a small group in Hanoi, has an honest perspective, “Ten years ago I wouldn’t have taken this job,” he says in un-accentuated English. “I am more comfortable now -- as are the people. Seventy percent of the population is post-war. Essentially our army of unsophisticated farmers fought for their country against an enemy, America, but they had no concept where or what that country was. They may recall the pain from the past today but, as they age in their villages, they are content to enjoy what’s left of their life.”

Hanoi pond. Tranquility at last.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.