New destinations emerged while others kept their solid footing.
The last 12 months were filled with momentous happenings, especially in the thrilling and exotic Asian and South Pacific destinations.
Glancing over the shoulder at the year behind, new and stirring locales stood out, and all indications are that these destinations will continue to make an impact in the coming years, while at the same time proven standbys retain their formidable and popular grip.
It’s not surprising that Myanmar and Bhutan stepped into the limelight to become something of the flavors of the year because, by and large, their remote mysteriousness alone has traditionally been a powerful lure for those wishing to peek into their isolated beauty. Meantime, India, China, Japan, New Zealand and Fiji—proven and profitable popular vacation spots—kept their solid footing among the most visited spots in the world.
As described in our October 2012 issue, in the Best of India at ITC Hotels article, India pulled all the stops regarding new tourist accommodations, most notably by ITC Hotels—properties that according to writer Sarah Muñoz, solidified their presence in the country.
K. Chiranjeevi, India’s tourism minister, launched a campaign to promote India under the slogan “Find What You Seek.”
The ambitious campaign aims to lure travelers in unprecedented numbers. “Tourists from the world over can find the destination or product of desire in India,” he says. “[India] offers everything, let it be heritage sites, ancient forts, beaches, backwaters, lakes, mountains, adventure, wildlife, culture, festivals, medical, wellness, religion or shopping. That’s why you’ll find what you seek in India.”
Along with the new campaign, 2012 will be remembered as the year when the country began seeing the results of a massive 2-year hotel building binge.
New properties on the Indian landscape run the gamut from restored properties to brand-new entities sure to leave an imprint on visitors to the subcontinent.
Among the most notable 2012 developments is Ishavilas (ishavilasgoa.com) in Goa, a full-service boutique luxury palace in Siolim full of gold-braided cushions, antiques and eccentric objets d’art that presents a baffling choice for visitors: the majestic and thoroughly Indian Peacock Room, the modern Terrace Suite or a quaint Oriental Cottage, all featuring fine al fresco dining, gardens and pools.
Lacking nothing in modern comfort, The Ranvas (jodhanaheritage.com) in Jodphur, built only two years ago, underwent an impressive facelift in 2012. The Ranvas is a restored 18th century estate built as a retreat for the wives of a Maharajah. It’s made up of 10 individual properties known as havelis that reflect its ancient heritage. The havelis each have three rooms with private courtyards and seem custom-made for romance.
Travelers wishing a taste of Indian nomadic life would do well to consider the newly opened Rasa Resort (rasaresorts.in) in the outskirts of Jaipur, India’s so-called “Pink City.” The property consists of 40 futuristic white tents set against the backdrop of majestic hills about 15 miles from Jaipur. Each canvas retreat features all modern amenities, luxury bathroom, private garden and secluded outdoor pavilion. The place is part five-star hotel and part campsite and its architecture and landscaping are stunning.
Sellers at the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Travel Mart held in September in Manila almost entirely agree that Bhutan was 2012’s “hot” Asian destination, as indicated by its double-digit increase in visitors during the year. Most attribute the growth to the country’s heightened awareness of tourism as a viable industry and to the success of “Happiness is a Place,” the catchy slogan unveiled by the Tourism Council of Bhutan 2011, and now an omnipresent catchphrase seen in countless posters throughout Asia.
Bhutan is the last remaining Buddhist kingdom in the world and the only country to guide its policy according to “Gross National Happiness” rather than Gross Domestic Product. In 2012, the people of the tiny, isolated kingdom seem to have come to terms with globalization while determined to preserve their identity and way of life. That has led the country to become one of the most sought-after destinations for travelers who want a taste of something different.
It is a tiny spot on the map, yet it looms large with its appeal and beauty. In 2012, the remote Himalayan kingdom met a goal set more than five years ago to attract visitors to this exquisite land that only opened to outsiders about 30 years ago and fiercely guards its ancient traditions. More than 50,000 came.
Meanwhile, new areas have opened to tourism; hotels and credit card infrastructures were upgraded, and last March more than 250 acres in the south, east and center were earmarked for tourism.
Bhutan Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y Thinley says: “We want to expand this [tourism] sector without compromising on our policy of high quality, low impact, as opposed to volume, tourism.”
The caveat for travel agents and tour operators, however, is that early in 2012 Bhutan raised the daily fee for visitors to $250 per day in part to control the influx of visitors eager to visit the bijou kingdom that bills itself as “The Last Shangri-La,” paying homage to the fictional Himalayan dreamland.
According to Russell Oquist, president of MG Tour Company (also known as Mongol Global Tour Company), boutique tour operators in Cypress, CA, “We have seen our business grow during 2012, especially in the Asia-Pacific area and have also had unprecedented requests for customized tours to Bhutan.”
Oquist considers Bhutan one of “the hottest destinations of 2012,” a label that suits the MG to a tee, a company he describes as “having been designed for people who work to live but live to travel.” He adds that despite the economic shortcomings of 2012, “we saw business grow.”
MG Tour Company’s Express Bhutan features the country’s marvels such as its magnificent ancient forts, monasteries, museums and even textile factories. For Westerners, the most unforgettable stop is the Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery perched on the ledge of a mountain cliff. It’s one of Asia’s most majestic sites.
Kiwi land, depicted in our August 2012 edition by this editor, as an “enthralling destination…bathed under an eerie, unnatural quality of light” in the New Zealand’s South Island is Sheer Eye Candy, held steady with about 2.5 million visitors to its spectacular shores in 2012.
As we published then, New Zealand has received a substantial push from the Hobbit movies, a fact impossible to ignore when arriving in the country.
In New Zealand, 2012 was all Hobbit, all the time: From a colossal, bug-eyed Gollum sculpture looming over arrivals at Wellington Airport, to massive Hobbit banners covering the facades of entire office blocks in Auckland, the film’s presence endures.
Fittingly, Gregg Anderson, general manager, Western Markets, for the New Zealand Tourism Board (newzealand.com), says a campaign in conjunction with Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com) “will start an extensive period of activity over the next four months as a lead-up to the release of the first movie.”
Anderson adds: “The U.S. is a priority market for Tourism New Zealand and a 100 percent Middle-Earth campaign activity. Our latest research shows a 63 percent level of awareness of the film among our target market, and we expect a significant increase in interest from the Americas with the release of ‘The Hobbit’ movie this month. All our marketing activity is working to convert this interest into a trip to New Zealand.”
The best selling point is that the campaign promotes airfare on Air New Zealand to Auckland beginning at $1,298 from Los Angeles or San Francisco through June next year and starting again in October, the peak travel seasons in New Zealand.
Another star on the New Zealand landscape is the remarkable recovery in 2012 of one of New Zealand’s most iconic resorts, the Otahuna Lodge, a former sheep and cattle station built in 1895 that today reflects all the raw beauty of the country and its undeniable English roots.
The Otahuna sits at the head of a remote valley on the South Island about a half-hour drive from Christchurch and offers guests a refined retreat highlighted by exemplary cuisine prepared from ingredients grown within the property.
One of the most enigmatic places on earth, Japan saw 2012 as a transition year that allowed it respite from the devastating 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster at Fukushima.
The progress has been astounding and, when it comes to tourism, the country appears to have regained its solid footing.
According to Daisuke Tonai, executive director of the Japan National Tourism Organization (jnto.go.jp/eng) in Los Angeles, the last 12 months was “a very good year, considering all the factors involved. New direct flights started service and many new hotel properties were opened. Thanks in part to these new offerings, U.S. visitors reached the 2010 level after a downturn in 2011 due to the great East Japan earthquake.”
In an article about Japan’s celebrated ryokan, the traditional quaint inns that dot the country, our May 2012 issue highlighted the charms of this land “where ancient traditions harmonize in wedded bliss with the modern age.” The January 2012 issue also carried an onsite story about Hokkaido, the northernmost island famous for its remote beauty. But 2012 also saw something of a renaissance from lesser-known Japanese destinations like Okinawa, Japan’s tropical retreat, where Hoshinoya Okinawa (global.hoshinoresort.com/hoshinoya_okinawa) opened this summer to much fanfare.
Hoshinoya is one of the country’s leading luxury hotel developers known for an attractive concept billed as “Authentic Japan with Modern Comfort.”
The 16-acre Okinawa property sits on the remote island of Taketomi and consists of 48 traditional villas topped with red tile roofs, private Japanese-style gardens, white coral sand paths and astounding ocean views. It’s one of the most serene spots in Japan.
The Ritz-Carlton, Okinawa (ritzcarlton.com) also opened in April as the collection’s first beachside resort in Japan, following its highly popular properties in Osaka and Kyoto. Once the Kise Bettei Hotel & Spa, the property has been utterly transformed into a luxury resort offering hospitality patterned after the ancient Okinawa Kingdom.
Our July 2012 issue highlighted Malaysia as one of Asia’s fastest rising tourism stars. The article depicted the country as “awash with enthralling spots that can turn a trip there into an unrivaled experience for personal enrichment,” and 2012 brought on improvements specifically designed to bring more visitors.
Malaysia’s popularity is a direct result of its distinctiveness.
According to Salahuddin Ariffin, v.p., Eastern USA, Tourism Malaysia (tourism.gov.my), “We feel that everyone will find something to love about Malaysia. Our country offers an array of activities, from shopping in the cities to jungle trekking in the rainforest; from visiting an ancient tribe to sunbathing at a beautiful beach. We have it all.”
The high number of visitors is a strong testimony to Ariffin’s claims. U.S. travel to Malaysia saw a dramatic 18.9 percent spike during 2012, while the United Nations World Tourism Organization ranked it as the ninth most visited destination in the world.
In 2010, Malaysia embarked on an ambitious project to increase the number of four- and five-star hotels. As of this July, 71 percent of the target has been met, with more than 2,000 new rooms now in operation.
While the focus has been on accommodations, 2012 also saw the opening of Malaysia Legoland (legoland.com.my), the first of its kind in Asia. The park is adjacent to Sanrio Hello Kitty, a theme park celebrating the ubiquitous feline, and the first of its kind outside Japan.
Both are sure to delight youngsters, but older visitors will find Malaysia awash with new hotels and sparkling resorts.
In addition to the recently opened Grand Hyatt (kualalumpur.grand.hyatt.com) in the heart of Kuala Lumpur (370 rooms, 42 suites), 2012 saw much activity in the country’s resort belt.
Seri Chenang Resort & Spa (serichenangresort.com) in Langkawi opened its doors last month. The boutique resort
focuses on providing superior experiences and personalized service while underlining the wonders of Malay culture.
With only six villas with 13 rooms each, it replicates traditional Malay life, making guests feel like they are visiting a Malay home. The secluded property lies within lush gardens with panoramic views of sea and mountains. It is one of the most romantic spots in Southeast Asia and ideal for honeymoons.
Perhaps no South Pacific destination in 2012 underwent such drastic changes as Fiji, the magnificent island nation that is outshining others in popularity.
Tourism authorities expected a surge in visitors, but they never expected it to be so dramatic. According to Dixon Seeto, president of the Fiji Hoteliers Association, 2012 was “a record year that brought 675,000 visitors, despite the hiccup resulting from the January floods that devastated parts of Fiji.”
Seeto says all indications point to Fiji having an even more successful 2013.
The 2012 changes are everywhere: From the opening of new resorts, to the rebranding of Air Pacific to its original name, Fiji Airways (fijiairways.com); from restructuring its tourism board, to changing its “Fiji Me” slogan with a new one.
Fiji Airways will start service from the U.S. west coast with the new aircraft in June. According to Dave Pflieger, Fiji Airways’ managing director and CEO, “The unveiling of the new look and features of our soon-to-arrive A330s is the latest milestone in a series of initiatives that are part of [our] restructuring and rebranding.”
Adds Elizabeth Powell, permanent secretary, Ministry of Public Enterprises and Tourism: “We will also be rebranding our country by no longer using ‘Fiji Me’ and replacing it with a new slogan, ‘Fiji—Where Happiness Finds You,’ as a result of an extensive destination marketing audit completed in late-2011.”
Powell adds that a new website designed exclusively for travel agents will be unveiled.
Ili Matatolu, regional director of the Americas for Tourism Fiji (fijime.com), says plans for an app for travel agents is being developed, as well.
According to Matatolu, the increase of visitors to Fiji is a direct result of steps Tourism Fiji “undertook at major trade and consumer marketing programs targeting increased visitor arrivals and length of stay. A particular focus is on California and the priority segments include luxury, weddings and honeymoons, incentive, scuba diving, surfing and the adventure market in general.”
She adds that U.S. visitors increased by a dramatic 6 percent as of July of this year when compared to 2011.
In addition to the multiple changes taking place in the tourism segment, a series of resorts are putting Fiji in the luxury market.
Tadrai Island Resort (tadrai.com) opened this year to rave reviews. It’s an exquisite, adults-only, all-inclusive tropical paradise on Mana Island, about 15 miles from Viti Levu, Fiji’s principal island.
Tadrai is sumptuousness personified. Its eight palm-thatched villas amid a palm-fringed cove give new meaning to relaxation, seclusion and luxury. Free helicopter transport is available during certain times.
Other resorts broke ground in 2012, each is raising the bar and making Fiji stand out among the South Pacific’s most desirable destinations.