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THE SAVVY TRAVELER

ASIA-PACIFIC ISSUE: ENCHANTMENTS OF THE FAR EAST : Americans Getting Oriented to Asian Markets : Trends: Tourism is booming in Asia Pacific region, and airlines and hotel operators are scrambling to keep up. The result is some good deals for consumers.

April 28, 1991|PETER S. GREENBERG

If you're thinking of a vacation overseas this summer, statistics say there's a good chance you might be considering Asia. Travel to that area has grown by at least 11% each year for the past four years, representing a quantum leap in visitors.

Why? Initially, the upswing in tourists occurred almost by omission. In 1985 and 1986, when Europe was experiencing its share of terrorism, many Americans changed their travel plans and, for the first time, discovered Asia.

They experienced reasonable prices, great service and, with few exceptions, an attitude that truly defined hospitality.

Since then, positive word-of-mouth has contributed to unprecedented growth in tourism.

The statistics are indeed impressive. One survey conducted by Boeing indicates that major Orient-connected markets are projected to surpass all other world markets in visitor volume by the end of the decade. In fact, according to the survey, average annual growth on Europe-Orient, intra-Orient and transpacific routes is more than double that of the U.S.-Western Europe market.

The battle for Asian air routes is just beginning. In the last year, 12 new routes have been granted to airlines just wanting to fly to Japan.

United has inaugurated Chicago-Tokyo. Delta is now flying Los Angeles-Tokyo, and American operates a San Jose-to-Tokyo flight.

In addition, Delta flies from Portland, Ore., to Nagoya, and America West applied for and received the Honolulu-Nagoya route. Continental began flying between Houston and Tokyo last August after trying to obtain route authority for more than 20 years.

However, one of the biggest problems confronting the enormous growth in Asia is airport and air traffic congestion. Airports in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo and Osaka are bulging at the seams.

In Hong Kong, Kai Tak Airport is grossly overcrowded--only one runway and limited gate space for the 43 separate airlines that serve Hong Kong.

Tokyo's Narita Airport is already operating beyond capacity.

The popularity of Asia as a destination can also be seen in new hotel development, which has been nothing less than staggering.

In Hong Kong, more than half of 34 announced new hotels have been built in the last three years. In fact, so many new hotels have opened in Hong Kong that it has created a labor shortage of qualified hotel workers. Now, virtually every top hotel has started intensive English-language training programs for prospective staffers.

Hilton International has plans to operate a new hotel in Kyongju, South Korea, making it the 18th Asian hotel that Hilton manages.

Last October, Choice Hotels International, the world's largest hotel franchise company with divisions that include Comfort, Quality, Rodeway and Econo Lodge, announced that it had signed a master franchise agreement with a private group in Jakarta to open more than 40 hotels throughout Indonesia within the next 10 years.

In Japan, the expansion is even greater. Sixty new Western-style hotels are scheduled to open in the country between now and 1996. Last year, 23 new hotels opened in Japan.

And the visitors keep coming.

In only three years, Delta has gone from five Asia flights a week to 30. Next month, the airline begins service to Hong Kong. And starting Wednesday, Cathay Pacific increases its Los Angeles-to-Hong Kong nonstop 747-400 flights from four times a week to seven. The move to a daily service has been mandated by demand.

Suddenly, the $750 million that United paid Pan Am for its Asia Pacific routes in 1985 seems like a bargain now. In fact, since 1988, United has increased its routes and service to Asia significantly. Last summer, the airline opened mini-hubs in Seoul and Taipei, Taiwan, then added Chicago-Tokyo earlier this year.

Northwest is now looking for routes to Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as a major expansion to Osaka, Japan, in 1994 (with the opening of a new airport there).

With all of the new development, both on the ground and in the air, there are the beginning indications of a buyer's market for travelers.

"It's not discounted like Europe," says Allen Johnson, senior vice president of Northwest's international division, "but the air fares to Asia are certainly better than they were a few years ago."

At this writing, demand hasn't exceeded supply, and a number of hotels in Asia are offering unadvertised discounts of up to 50% off rooms and suites. U.S. airlines have also begun to discount on some routes to Asia.

Late last year, when Singapore Airlines and Japan Air Lines reduced some transpacific fares, United and Northwest matched the discounts. And most recently, Northwest has offered members of its frequent-flier program a free domestic ticket with every round trip to Asia (through June 15).

Major Asian-based air carriers, ranging from Malaysia Airlines and Garuda Indonesia to Cathay Pacific, have been offering discounts--either officially or under the table through bucket shops and consolidators.

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