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Asia travel: Five trends to watch

Political transformation, medical tourism, high-speed rail, cheap airfares and a boom in cruising are among the hot topics in Asia travel.

March 06, 2011|By Andrew Bender | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers light up the night. The Malaysian capital is seen as a model of relative stability.
Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers light up the night. The Malaysian… (Bazuki Muhammad / Reuters )

Geopolitics. Rhinoplasty. Who knew those would be among the hottest topics in Asia for 2011? It was news to me, and I've been going back and forth to Asia for a quarter-century, with trips to Japan and China last year alone. To see what the Asia traveler might have in store, I spoke with academics, policy people and regular travelers. Here's what they told me:

Political changes

Could there be an Asian contagion from recent unrest in the Arab world? Lowell Dittmer, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley, thinks it's unlikely. He distinguishes largely Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and the like. "Both Malaysia and Indonesia are relatively stable democracies and have been seen as models for the future of post-revolutionary Islamic societies of North Africa and the Middle East," he says.

The freeing of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar and other political developments are likely to increase tourism there. "There was effectively a tourism boycott," says Robert Reid, the U.S. travel editor for Lonely Planet, because of Suu Kyi's on-again-off-again house arrest for the last 20 years. After Suu Kyi's release in November, her political party, the National League for Democracy, began encouraging individual travelers to return to Myanmar. The National League still frowns on package tours, says Reid, which it perceives as cooperating with — and thereby helping fund — the military government.

North Korean attacks on a South Korean warship and island made headlines last year, but "for visitors to South Korea, it's not a great concern," says Sue Terry, fellow and Korea specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "This has been going on for decades." North Korea provokes South Korea when there's a leadership succession in that isolated nation, Terry says. (Leader Kim Jong Il appears to have made his son, Kim Jong Un, the successor[). "North Korea very well knows not to escalate to the degree that there will be war," Terry says. "The moment that happens, it will be over for them."

For current travel warnings, alerts and country profiles, visit the U.S. State Department's website, http://www.travel.state.gov.

Medical tourism

Americans fretting about rising medical costs at home are among those creating a boom in Asian medical tourism. Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and India are leading the way in checkups, fertility treatments, joint replacements and cosmetic surgery by professionals, many trained stateside, at a fraction of the cost in the U.S.

Costs for Americans can be as much as 70% less than in the U.S., says Paul Keckley, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions in Washington, D.C. He estimates that 140,000 travelers went to Thailand alone in 2009 for medical procedures. American medical tourists go for "short-stay surgical procedures where people don't perceive much risk," such as breast augmentation, gum surgery and nose jobs, he says. "You're probably not going over for a lung transplant."

In techie Korea, there's a smart phone app for that (MediApp Korea) in four languages, including English, and a Medical Tourism Information Center at Seoul's Incheon International Airport directs visitors to clinics for plastic surgery, dentistry, fertility, Oriental medicine and more. Treatments in India span Western medicine and ayurvedic massage and yoga, and Bangkok's Bumrungrad Hospital has an international reputation for arthroscopy, tattoo removal and other specialties. Bangkok is even known as a center for gender reassignment surgery.

Keckley cautions those considering such a trip that it's a buyer-beware market. The risk is not so much in the procedure, he says, but in the potential for complications after travelers return home. Some Asian practitioners are enhancing pre- and post-care by using such tools as electronic record keeping.

High-speed rail

While the U.S. has been debating high-speed rail, China has been building it at warp speed.

China's first high-speed line connected Beijing with Tianjin in 2008, and four more lines have opened since. Anticipation is high for a sixth line, which is to connect Beijing with Shanghai in June. It's expected to run the 819-mile route in about four hours, at speeds up to 236 mph. Tickets are projected to cost about $103 versus $190 for a coach-class flight of two hours.

Japan created the world's first permanent high-speed rail system in 1964, and the network continues to expand. On Saturday, the new Shinkansen (bullet trains) on the southern island of Kyushu will extend the journey from the current terminus, Hakata (in Fukuoka), to the new southern terminus in Kagoshima, making the trip in 78 minutes. Along the way, Kyushu's other big city, Kumamoto, will be a 33-minute day trip (or new commuting option) from busy Fukuoka.

Cheaper airfares

A la EasyJet and Ryanair in Europe, frills-free, low-cost carriers are bringing air travel to the masses across Asia.

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