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On a Budget

Asia's Bargains Cheaper Than Ever

April 19, 1998|ARTHUR FROMMER

Late last year when Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia and other Pacific Rim countries started coming down with the so-called Asian contagion, stock markets plummeted, banks folded and common folks and investors alike were thrown into a tizzy.

But for value-minded travelers, this particular flu is nothing to sneeze at: For us, these fascinating lands are cheaper than ever thanks to currency devaluations, plus a severe drop-off in travel to all of Asia (including even more fiscally solid places such as Hong Kong). One result: The travel industry has been wheeling out some very attractive packages to lure us there.

So why aren't Americans rushing to take advantage of deals the likes of which haven't been seen in years? Why are some airlines, tour operators and hotels in the Asian market reporting sinking sales?

It's apparently because reports still circulate of social unrest, bird flu and forest-fire pollution, despite the fact that most of those scary conditions have diminished to a near-vanishing point. Social unrest seems to be confined to secondary Indonesian cities largely unvisited by tourists, monsoons put out the fires and bird flu is no longer raging.

(One problem has returned in recent days: Smoke from resurgent fires on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra recently arrived in Singapore, over 600 miles away.)

The effect of these problems on the travel industry's bottom line has been very real. Many Asian airlines have cut back operations, and Indonesia's has (temporarily, it says) suspended U.S.-bound flights altogether.

Thailand, the first country to wobble, price-wise, last summer, boasts gracious people, tasty food and no shortage of high-quality accommodations--along with lovely beaches and impressive Buddhist sites. Last June, the U.S. dollar bought 24 baht; in recent weeks it's been buying closer to 40. As a result, prices for Americans--low to begin with--are now practically a steal. A good restaurant meal once costing $10 now goes for about $6, and rooms at some deluxe hotels can be had in the $50 range (though other five-star properties have kept rates high by charging in dollars).

Round-trip air fares to Bangkok from the West Coast now run about $679 (through Ticket Planet, telephone [800] 799-8888). From June through August, fares can be up to $100 higher.

A seven-day "Super Net" package available from Pacific Bestour ([800] 289-9806) includes air from the West Coast to Bangkok and five hotel nights for prices starting at $659; in July and August, though, the price jumps to $959.

Pacific Delight Tours ([800] 221-7179) offers an eight-day, air-and-hotel "Bangkok Supervalue Plus" package starting at $659 from the West Coast; after June, this will go up $100 or so.

This year, Indonesia's worries blossomed into a full-fledged financial crisis, aggravated by business and government corruption and the smoky hangover from months of forest fires. Still, this 3,000-mile island chain remains a place of amazing beauty and diversity, where hospitality still means something. Now it's also cheap in the extreme, with the rupiah having crashed from 2,430 to the dollar in mid-1997 to 9,000 by this spring.

On the island of Bali, long an inexpensive tourist favorite, a two-hour escorted market tour costing 12,000 rupiah currently works out to less than $2; a car with chauffeur can be hired for less than $10 per diem. Decent hotels charging in rupiah, range from a reasonable $115 (for several deluxe varieties) down to an eye-popping $6 a night.

A few well-priced packages to Bali are available from companies such as Escapes Unlimited ([800] 243-7227), whose seven-day/five-nighter from Los Angeles goes for $969 ($1,089 June through mid-August).

More commonly, the island also figures in a number of multi-stop itineraries: Ticket Planet's flexible air ticket (good for a year) covers Bali plus Bangkok and Hong Kong starting at $999 from Los Angeles. SmarTours ([800] 337-7773), meanwhile, has an extensive, feature-filled air/land package that buys Bali along with Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong--15 days--for $1,999 from Los Angeles, $1,899 from San Francisco.

Markets being what they are, several Asian currencies have already rebounded a bit since hitting lows earlier this year (except the rupiah, which has mostly continued dropping), and they could revive further in the coming months. But at least in the short term, the region's money woes translate into some of 1998's hottest travel opportunities. And if consumer skittishness generated by recent headlines persists, we may yet see even better deals come down the pike this summer.

*

This new column from Frommer, a longtime budget travel expert, will appear weekly in the Travel section.

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