South Korea’s tourism board intends to continue spreading awareness about the destination, including its capital of Seoul. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Lantau Island is one of Hong Kong’s 260 outlying islands. // © 2016 Hong Kong Tourism Board
As is often the case, the world is in flux — and with it, the travel industry. However, despite being both directly and indirectly affected by natural disasters, acts of terrorism and other ill-fated events, the industry continues to adapt, rebuild and bounce back the best it can — and, ideally, reemerge stronger than before.
Happily, countries across Asia currently find themselves outside the range of today’s issues causing uneasiness in U.S. travelers. As stated by Geo Branding Center’s “How Global Voices Shape Travel Choices” December 2015 report, one in four travelers has changed vacation plans in the past year, citing reasons such as global or local safety, health concerns and security.
This includes potential terrorist attacks, which, according to July 2016’s Vacation Confidence Index from Allianz Global Assistance, 86 percent of U.S. travelers are concerned about. Due to these threats, Americans are most apprehensive about traveling to the Middle East (75 percent), followed by Europe (66 percent) and Africa (63 percent).
As for traveling to Asia, the percentage of apprehension falls to 55 percent — just 3 percent above Americans who are worried when traveling within the U.S. or to Canada.
U.S. travelers are also on high alert over the Zika virus, which has caused outbreaks in the Caribbean, Central America, the Pacific Islands and South America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though some Zika cases have been reported in Asia, the virus is considered “endemic Zika” in Asian countries, meaning it has a low risk and does not warrant a travel alert.
This travel climate — in addition to improved access, inventive campaigns, smart partnerships and multidestination marketing — has led to a steady increase in demand for travel to Asia. Still, these destinations say they need the help of travel agents, not only to sell incoming travel to their clients, but also to clear up any misconceptions, get visitors off the beaten path and entice them to go back for more.
Last month, at TravelAge West’s Los Angeles office, representatives from several Asian countries, including Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, joined the editorial staff for a roundtable on the state of tourism in Asia, with a focus on how it relates to American travel agents. Representatives from India and South Korea also individually participated in the dialogue at a later time.
Following are highlights from the conversations, including insight into how agents can effectively sell the destinations to clients.
Attracting American Travelers
When asked what the biggest challenge in attracting first-time American travelers to their destination is, representatives agreed: distance.
“First-time travelers are always afraid of the long-haul flight,” said Lert Narongchaisakun, marketing officer for Tourism Authority of Thailand. “When you fly to Thailand or anywhere else in Southeast Asia, you have to stop at least once or twice.”
After that first visit, though, travelers get hooked on the country dubbed the “Land of Smiles.” According to Narongchaisakun, about 60 to 70 percent of travelers to Thailand are return visitors. When marketing to this group, the challenge then shifts to encompass even greater visitor expenditure, which includes promoting and profiting from experiences outside the typical first-time itinerary.
In Japan, two additional “myths” also seem to beset first-time travelers to the destination: language barriers and high prices, according to Yohko Scott, manager for Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). But, she says, all of these worries typically dissolve upon arrival.
“The second that people get to Japan, they realize it’s not that far,” Scott says, noting that flights from Los Angeles to Japan are about 11 ½ hours, and return flight time is around 10 hours. “As for language barriers, we don’t speak perfect English, but we manage, and signs are everywhere,” she said. “Japan isn’t cheap because we have five-star hotels, along with all the varieties; if you want to get the best, we can always offer the best. But, with these myths, we have to educate agents and we have to educate consumers.”
In other cases, tourism boards are tasked with simply spreading awareness.
“In high schools in America, they don’t really talk about Korean culture and history; they usually gloss over it in a day or two, so not many people know about Korea,” said Erica Kim, marketing coordinator for Korea Tourism Organization. “We’re just trying to share that Korea has a lot to offer, and that it is a top destination. In 2015, we had more than 760,000 Americans traveling to Korea, so right now we’re trying to get 1 million American travelers to visit within the next three years.”
But reaching those ambitious figures doesn’t come without challenges.
Cathy Hung, deputy director for Taiwan Tourism Bureau (TTB), Los Angeles Office Tourism Division, says that consumers frequently get Taiwan confused with Thailand.
“Taiwan is recognized as an industry country, not a tourism country, so we’ve made a lot of effort to change that in the past decade,” Hung said. “The American market is very important to us because it has the second-largest number of return visitors to Taiwan.”
Working With Travel Agents
Shirley Tu, national trade marketing manager for Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB), says she understands that American travelers might be wary of factors such as long-haul travel.
Enter the travel agent — someone who goes to bat for a destination. What’s more, he or she is a person the consumer will seek advice from, thanks to a genuine human relationship.
“When you have someone such as a travel agent who has already been there several times, he or she will bring more people, because those people trust that agent, who is going to take care of them,” Tu said.
For JNTO’s Scott, working with travel trade such as agent consortia, as well as with consumers, is a matter of quality and quantity.
“We want both,” Scott said. “For quality, we are working with Signature Travel Network and Virtuoso, and for quantity, we are attending consumer travel shows.”
And savvy travel agents can distinguish themselves by tailoring a trip to a client as specifically as possible, which usually means sidestepping travel packages in favor of a custom itinerary, Scott says.
Handling the client’s budget for a trip is another vital component. It’s essential to make the most out of the allocated funds, rather than allow them to limit, and consequently reduce, the trip’s quality. Tu says one big problem is when an agent merely matches a budget to items without diving a little deeper.
“What agents should do is take the time and see what their clients really want to do,” Tu said. “Budget shouldn’t be the only criteria.”
For example, according to Hung, her TTB office receives recurrent complaints from consumers who have taken a conspicuously inexpensive shopping tour and then leave the experience disgruntled. These types of low-quality tours are in no way endorsed by Taiwan’s tourism bureau, and Hung says such mistakes can be easily avoided if consumers work with a travel agent who, at the same time, is already working with the tourism board.
Above all, the representatives agreed that getting up close and personal with a destination is what really propels an agent toward success. This includes everything from attending webinars and enrolling in agent education programs to actually visiting the destination. It also means picking up the phone and calling tourism board offices with any questions, which their employees are happy to answer.
By investing this extra effort, agents can arrange trips that veer off the beaten path toward attractions and sites undiscovered by most consumers.
“If agents are just showing the standard, iconic attractions in a destination and they’re missing the emotional and cultural part, they’re also missing a big opportunity to truly delight their clients,” said Bill Flora, director of the U.S. for HKTB.
In reality, there are few people who know a destination better than members of its tourism board, and these travel agent advocates can point your clients toward the very best parts of a destination. For example, in India — where American travelers are the No. 1 source market, accounting for more than 1.2 million travelers in 2015 — there is far more to explore than the classic Delhi, Agra and Jaipur itinerary.
“People have traditionally been doing the Golden Triangle, and I think it has been pushed because that’s something Americans know, so we think, ‘OK, let’s sell that, let’s promote that,’” said Sandhya Haridas, assistant director for the Los Angeles office of India Ministry of Tourism. “Now what we’ve been doing as a tourism office is working with travel agents to showcase other parts of India and opening them up to a totally different world: You can do luxury tours in India, you can do culinary tours, you can do basically any possible type of travel, including visiting churches and even the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations.”
And visiting Japan is no longer just about taking the typical tourist track of Tokyo to Mount Fuji to Kyoto. The country is attracting a rising number of skiers who want to take advantage of Hokkaido’s renowned powder snow, as well as other active folks who prefer to go diving in Okinawa. Meanwhile, Flora suggests exploring the parks that make up 40 percent of Hong Kong’s land volume or hiking its 260 outlying islands.
“Tourism boards can be really helpful in finding the special experiences that agents might not be aware of,” Flora said. “And those are the things that take it from being a regular trip to the trip of a lifetime.”