For travelers with adventure in their souls, this may be the best of times to visit Asia.
Destinations such as Hong Kong and Singapore that began reporting outbreaks last spring of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, have pulled out the stops to tempt tourists after getting a clean bill of health from the World Health Organization. They have staged special events and offered the best deals in years, such as five-night air-and-land packages from LAX for $499 per person and up to 40,000 bonus miles for frequent fliers.
Although the region remains on alert and there is concern that SARS could return this winter, the chances of getting infected, even at the outbreak's peak, were never very great. In Hong Kong, which has 7.4 million people and logged the world's second-largest number of cases (after mainland China), 1,755 became ill and 300 died, WHO reported. Your chances of contracting SARS there were about 1 in 4,200 and of dying from it, 1 in nearly 25,000.
But fear of the unknown and worldwide publicity about the sometimes-fatal infection drove potential visitors away from Asia between March and July, when the WHO declared the outbreak under control worldwide. At the height of the scare, some hotels were filling only 15% of their rooms. Hence the blizzard of bargains.
The campaign to woo people has worked so well that travel has rebounded in recent weeks. Some of the best deals, such as two-for-one packages, have expired, but you still can find discounts.
Singapore last month logged just 10% fewer visitors than it did a year ago. Hong Kong did even better, with nearly 7% more visitors in August than in August 2002. Airlines are restoring Hong Kong service to pre-SARS levels, a Hong Kong Tourism Board spokeswoman said: Continental in August, Cathay Pacific by the end of this month and United in October.
Even as a fairly health-conscious person, I was undeterred from taking a seven-day trip this month to Hong Kong and Singapore. The package price of $2,508 for two people, including travel insurance, hotels and airfare from Los Angeles, was irresistible. In these dynamic hubs, I discovered new attractions, tours and special events -- and many bargains. What more can a traveler ask for?
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East-West crossroads offers varied treasures
A dizzying mix of sophisticated, modern megalopolis and ancient Asian culture and festivals, Hong Kong, a city of more than 7 million, is unique -- and probably impossible to comprehend on a visit of many days, much less the three we spent. For a place so tiny -- about 400 square miles -- it is amazingly complex, cacophonous and charming. Here were a few of our favorite things:
Yung Kee Restaurant: This is a multistory shrine to Cantonese food that's been serving since 1942. Poultry hanging in the windows outside
offers a preview of its specialty: roasted goose. The restaurant also serves thousand-year eggs -- actually aged for about 100 days and really not as distasteful as they may sound. Allow plenty of time to study Yung Kee's three encyclopedic menus: "regular," seasonal (which is changed every two months) and fixed-price. Servings are more than generous. Prices, although not cheap, are reasonable for the quality of the meal. Try the goose, of course, and finish your feast with the mango pudding, a delightful concoction of fruit and condensed milk. For phone and address, see "Ultra-urban Idyll," below left.
Victoria Peak: We took a bus, but the 1888-vintage tram is the classiest way to reach this 1,805-foot-high perch. Day or night, the panorama of Hong Kong's cityscape, Victoria Harbour, Kowloon peninsula and the hills of the New Territories is breathtaking. Go on a clear day, take your camera and expect company; more than 6 million people visit here each year. The Peak, as it's popularly known, also offers some respite from the heat, humidity and urban hustle below. No wonder the nearby residential area is known as the Beverly Hills of Hong Kong, with rents as sky-high as the view. About 40% of the Rolls-Royces in the city are registered here, our tour guide said. Also nearby are several scenic footpaths.
Nathan Road: For raw mercantile energy, few places can beat this Kowloon shopping mecca, crammed with tourists, hawkers and gaudy shop signs. Cheaper prices may be found on Nathan's side streets or farther north, in Kowloon's Mong Kok district. Harbour City, near the Star Ferry pier a short distance away, may have glitzier designer shops, but how can you afford to miss this scene? Also worth a stop on the way are the crumbling Chungking Mansions, tacky tourist digs with shops and restaurants. While grabbing some Indian food inside, you can fantasize you're starring in "Chungking Express," Wong Kar-wai's 1994 feature set here.
Lantern Celebration: Hong Kong has extended the colorful Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated widely in Chinese culture, into a monthlong Mid-Autumn Lantern Celebration, through Oct. 19. The festival extension is one of several special events aimed at boosting tourism after SARS. Others include the city's first-ever International Musical Fireworks Competition, in October, and the staging of the annual Chinese New Year Parade, on Jan. 22, at night for the first time, with festive illuminations.
-- Jane Engle