Asia & The South Pacific in the rearview mirror

written by | Posted on December 9th, 2013

Myanmar's rise in tourism has been meteoric.

Myanmar’s rise in tourism has been meteoric.

As far as travel to Asia is concerned, it’s tricky to look back on the past year because the continent is so varied, eclectic and baffling with growth and mesmerizing new destinations. Projects and developments ranging from the modest to the ultra-luxurious seem to sprout almost overnight, while the number of visitors flocking to all corners of this vast land appears growing with no end in sight.

The South Pacific, too, is in transition with growth so rapid that a traveler often experiences the uneasy feeling of arriving into a new and unexplored destination—even when his last visit was only a few months back.

In what the Chinese zodiac calls the Year of the Snake, 2013 has slithered away after a successful run—and 2014, the Year of the Horse, looks like it will gallop in graceful strides that promise a rosy outlook for the travel industry—as tourism, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, generated $293 billion in the Asia-Pacific region during the past year.

Some destinations received considerable play while other equally alluring places were mere spear holders in the vast drama of world tourism. When it comes to welcoming visitors, 2013 saw many time-tested destinations hold their own and the uptick of travelers to Asia and the South Pacific region indicates that tourists are venturing beyond the usual spots. In this feature, rather than stretch myself thin and cover various destinations, I decided to focus on some of my favorite spots in the region.

japan

In the March 2013 issue, I wrote an onsite review on Kyushu, Japan’s southern island. I personally find this destination one of Japan’s most spectacular and singular places, an opinion shared by many.

Shuichi Kameyama, director of international tourism at the Japan Tourism Agency (jnto.go.jp/eng), was quoted in that onsite as saying that although Americans comprised only 3 percent of the total number of tourists in 2012, the region expects “definitely a higher number in 2013.”

The latest figures (October 2013) shows Kameyama’s uncanny foresight: the number of American visitors has risen to about
5 percent.

Hiroyosu Konishi, manager, overseas division of Kyushu’s Tourism Promotion Organization (welcomekyushu.com), was also quoted in that onsite as saying that “anyone who wants to see a little paradise and enjoy our onzen (traditional Japanese bath houses) and other purely Japanese treats will delight in Kyushu.” Both were proven correct.

Tara Schreiner, v. p. of sales and marketing at Super Value Tours (supervaluetours.com) agrees. Her company, based in El Monte, CA, is one of the leading tour operators in North America and the highest volume tour operator to Japan. It specializes in what she describes as “once-in-a-lifetime tours to Asia” serving destinations like Japan, China, Taiwan, Cambodia and Vietnam.

“Kyushu is really special and an area not a lot of travelers have been to,” she says. “For those who love experiencing Japanese culture, Kyushu offers its own sub-culture, similar in many respects to Japan but also unique. It truly is one of Japan’s best kept secrets.”

Super Value Tours offers an 8-day Kyushu Exploration tour. Schreiner describes this tour as “an exploration that will leave you feeling refreshed and tranquil. There are natural hot springs, one-of-a-kind sand baths, immaculate landscapes and an active volcanic center. You haven’t experienced everything that Japan has to offer without having visited Kyushu.”

The village of Yuifin in Kyushu is a classic Japanese destination.

The village of Yuifin in Kyushu is a classic Japanese destination.

kyushu by rail

Perhaps the most significant 2013 development in Kyushu is the introduction of a different way to see the wonders of the island—by train.

This truly—and pricey—Japanese indulgence was unveiled in October when the Kyushu Railway Company (JR Kyushu) (jrkyushu.co.jp) inaugurated Seven Stars, a sleek train that, with its purple and gold livery, is rapidly becoming a fixture in Kyushu.

Japanese trains are fabled for their cleanliness, speed, safety and punctuality, but this rail journey ups the ante when it comes to luxury train travel. It outshines legendary train journeys in Asia, like India’s Maharaja’s Express and Singapore’s Eastern & Oriental Express.

I have found delights in every region in Japan, but I am convinced that the Seven Stars is the most spectacular way to see Kyushu—or any Asian destination for that matter. The train is a splendid blend of Western and Japanese designs, with shoji paper screens, rotating chairs, live music in the lounge and superb Kyushu delicacies in the dining car.

Departing from Hakata Station near the port in Fukuoka, Kyushu’s largest city, Seven Stars meanders through rolling hills and magnificent coastlines before skirting Mount Aso, one of the world’s largest volcanoes. It stops in unforgettable, serene and beautiful locations like the hot springs of Yufuin and Kirishima. From there, it continues to the southern city of Kagoshima where views of Sakurajima volcano simply astound, before returning to Hakata.

As I mentioned in the March 2013 onsite review, the 7-car train is made up of two deluxe suites in one passenger car, as well as 12 suites spread through four passenger, lounge and dining cars.

A highlight of the all-suite service is the end car’s Deluxe Suite A, a 226-sq.-ft. rolling palace with a 5-ft. panoramic window overlooking the tracks. It is the dominant feature of the swanky suite. Depending on the direction of travel, passengers can see distant views up and down the track. It’s fully booked until June.

myanmar

When friends ask which is my favorite country in Asia, I normally admit my weakness for Myanmar.

Although this mysterious and appealing country has had its share of headlines because of recent economic and political upheavals, Myanmar is the place to visit if one wants to witness first-hand a nascent tourism industry emerging within a dreamlike destination that enthralls anyone willing to venture beyond the proverbial well-trod path.

That’s why I had to flip back to the November 2012 issue, which praised Myanmar as one of the hot destinations for 2013. In that article, Myanmar—The Place Where Time Stood Still, Risa Sekiguchi, product manager for Abercrombie & Kent, noted that the tour operator saw an “80 percent plus increase in bookings this year [2012].” It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Myanmar’s rise in tourism has been meteoric. According to a report by the country’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, “tourism grew by a whopping 30 percent in the last year—Southeast Asia’s largest—surpassing Thailand and Vietnam.”

Myanmar is no easy destination—especially when it concerns independent travelers. But when it comes to opening its doors to tourism, now that Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party have sanctioned responsible tourism, significant inroads are being blazed.

The recent surge of visitors has created some problems, notably the country’s infant tourism infrastructure struggling to cope with the emergent number of visitors. But Myanmar is a spectacular treat for those willing to put up with small inconveniences.

Yangon, the capital once known as Rangoon, has a gasp-inducing skyline, highlighted by golden pagodas that stand incongruously in front of the steel skeletons marking new construction as the country braces itself for the inevitable influx of visitors. Colonial facades stand next to improbable gardens lining wide streets in a genuinely Southeast Asian scene.

Those visiting Myanmar would be remiss to skip Bagan in central Myanmar. It’s one of the world’s most spectacular archaeological sites, outshining Peru’s Machu Picchu and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.

Says Geoffrey Kent, founder, CEO and chairman, Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.com), “This is a truly spiritual destination [because] the Burmese countryside is largely untouched by the influence of Western civilization. The stunning landscape of pagodas and temples surrounding Bagan has changed little in 1,500 years.”

As personal experience proves, Kent is correct. Bagan is transcendent. It sprawls on a 26-sq.-mile plain in a bend of the placid Irrawaddy River with a backdrop of distant, hazy, pewter-colored mountains.

Rising from a green jungle canopy, 2,200 radiant temples from an original 4,500—built between 1057 and 1287, before Kubla Khan invaded the region—remain.

Although only a handful are regularly visited (visitors are increasing) this is still, by the standards of archaeological sites of similar beauty, a resplendent and untarnished destination.

A number of airlines began service to Bagan in 2013. Asian Wings (asianwingsair.com), Air Mandalay (air-mandalay.com), Air Bagan (airbagan.com) and Yangon Airways (yangonair.com) offer regular service from Yangon.

This year, Abercrombie & Kent unveiled a dazzling package called Myanmar & the Ayeyarwady, an 11-day journey touching on the country’s most significant spots. The tour extends into next year.

Abercrombie & Kent is bullish on Myanmar (a rising star in the A&K menu), and Asia in particular. According to Richard Harris, senior v.p. of operations and product, “India rose dramatically in popularity in 2013. It has always had a fantastic history, but now that it’s seen as one of the major countries of the future it has added to travelers’ interest…we also saw great interest in Nepal and in neighboring Bhutan.” Read through last month’s issue where we highlight Bhutan as a “hot destination” for 2014.

 

india

Based on the rosy outlook resulting from 2013’s figures, Incredible India (incredibleindia.org) is optimistic that the country will set additional new records. As of October 2013, tourism to the subcontinent increased 4.8 percent from 2012.

Although U.S. arrivals represent approximately 5 percent of that figure, the number is expected to rise due to the Indian government’s relaxation of visa requirements for Americans. Clearing that previously cumbersome hurdle is already showing positive results. Hotels in Jaipur and Agra, the two most popular destinations for Americans, are already booked until February.

As a result of these bullish numbers, India went into something of a hotel building frenzy in 2013. The Ritz-Carlton, Bangalore (ritzcarlton.com) opened its doors early in the year followed by the Westin Chennai, Velachery (starwoodhotels.com/westin); Conrad Bangalore (conradhotels3.hilton.com); Hilton Shillim Estate Retreat & Spa (hilton.com); and the Hilton New Delhi Palace.

According to Incredible India, 2014 will see even more new properties—such as the Le Meridien Mahabaleshwar Resort & Spa (starwoodhotels.com)—spring up in anticipation of India becoming one of the world’s more popular destinations.

pacific region

According to most travel specialists, the South Pacific region underwent impressive growth during 2013, no doubt due to the great beauty within the vast watery expanse that encompasses Australia, New Zealand and the jaw-dropping island groups of the South Pacific.

I have found that destinations like Fiji, the Cook Islands and Tahiti cater to a different type of traveler that, generally speaking, fits the Jimmy Buffett mold: beach lovers, partygoers and nature buffs.

Fiji underwent impressive growth during the last 12 calendar pages and predictions made by Dixon Seeto, president of the Fiji Hoteliers Association, in 2012 when he foresaw an increase in tourism from the more than 675,000 that visited the island nation that year came to pass.

The current trend for the South Pacific seems to indicate that more visitors are opting for out-of-the-way destinations like Tasmania, which we covered in the November 2013 issue and which we deem to be a hot destination for 2014. In that feature, I noted that, “Tasmania is a destination of stunning, retiring beauty. It has raised the tourism ante with first-rate accommodations, alluring attractions, and exceptional cuisine.” It is to this destination where adventurous travelers seeking an underdeveloped version of Australia are flocking to in record numbers.

According to Paul Wiseman, U.S. president at Trafalgar (trafalgar.com), the Pacific experienced unprecedented growth during the last year.

“Sales to the region were very positive, with growth around 17 percent,” he says. “The lead factor in that growth is twofold: First, the increasing popularity of New Zealand as a stand-alone destination. Secondly, an uptick in the combination of Australia and New Zealand—as seen by a triple digit increase in sales of our Panorama product, a 15-day tour of both countries.”

According to Wiseman, “The notable changes [in 2013] were really in the sales volume increase that was largely driven by New Zealand. We are delighted with the double-digit increase in sales during 2013 to the South Pacific and New Zealand is leading the charge with regard to popularity.”

He adds: “Americans view a Down Under trip as highly desirable. However, the tyranny of distance is very difficult to overcome in the minds of potential travelers. With 10,000 Americans now retiring every day, we believe they will have the time on their hands to make the journey. As such, we predict that our longer duration products will lead sales growth into the future.”

cruise + land = tahiti

Vacationers plying the waters of the South Seas will delight in Holland America Line’s Amsterdam and Statendam (hollandamerica.com), luxury vessels that are as familiar to the area as the wind-blown palm trees so identified with the tropical islands.

In 2013, the cruise company began offering a new take on its South Seas voyages by giving passengers—as a respite from the cruise—the option for a stay in the idyllic overwater bungalows at the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa.

The resort is splashed between two bays with a stunning mountain backdrop and guests, after spending the morning in Papeete, are ferried to the resort for a romantic night. The following morning, they are treated to breakfast delivered to the bungalow by outrigger canoes while the staff sings ancient Tahitian songs.

The new twist seems to be a hit. Holland America reports that an unprecedented number of its passengers are opting for it.