Asia Makes a Comeback

Tourist boards pull out the stops to bring back visitors after SARS

By: Laura Del Rosso

Ask Mark Yeo of the Singapore Tourism Board in Los Angeles about 2004 projections, and he foresees a “bumper crop” in pent-up demand. Equally optimistic is Lily Shum of the Hong Kong Tourism Board in Los Angeles, who is counting on the travel trade and a campaign starring actor Jackie Chan to spur a full recovery of travel to Hong Kong. Yeo and Shum are two West Coast-based executives representing Asian destinations hardest hit by severe acute respiratory syndrome the contagious disease known as SARS which devastated travel to Asia during April through June 2003.

It has been months since the World Health Organization lifted its advisory against travel to any Asian country afflicted by SARS.

Business travel, ethnic travel and some group travel have returned to near pre-SARS levels, which some regard as a remarkable achievement given that travel had come to a virtual halt amid widespread fear of the disease. Some credit the bounce back to the destinations’ aggressive response to the crisis.

“In my 20 years in the travel industry, I have never seen such informative, entertaining and culturally rich promotions as those that came out after the SARS outbreak,” said Jim Ferguson, director-Americas for the Pacific Asia Travel Association. “The Asian countries have put SARS behind them and roared back.”

In June, PATA started its own campaign to re-invigorate travel after SARS, and launched a new Web site,, with the latest travel advisories and travel deals and promotions.

As impressive as the bounce-back has been, however, leisure travel continues to lag, and it will be a few more months before that segment makes a full recovery, say tourist offices and tour operators.

“I think we’re going to see some dramatic improvement in numbers in the first quarter of 2004 and into the summer,” said Ferguson.

Prices for Asia travel will not be as low as in 2003 when desperate times called for desperate measures and consumers were lured with $350 roundtrip air from the West Coast to Singapore and $888 for a three-night Hong Kong package for two.

But there are bargains to be found and a wide variety of advertising, brochures, Web content and other promotional material available from tour operators and tourist offices to back up travel agents who sell Asian destinations.

Here is a look at some of the major destinations and their marketing plans.


The impact of the SARS epidemic on China tourism was deep, but it will be a hiccup in the long-term because prospects for China are outstanding, according to recent report from the World Travel and Tourism Council.

The council, a private group representing hotel and travel companies, predicted leisure and business travel to China will rise a whopping 22 percent each year through 2013.

The report buoyed China’s tourism industry, which needed a lift after travel plummeted during the SARS scare.

For example, the number of Americans traveling to China from January through September 2003 was 750,752 a 31.73 percent drop from the same period in 2002. Many Americans are continuing to postpone booking, in part because they want to make sure there is not a recurrence of SARS during the winter, as some have feared, said Grace Zhu, assistant director of the China National Tourist Office in Glendale, Calif.

“People are holding off (travel) this winter and waiting to book trips until spring, but we expect a total recovery for the second half of 2004,” she said.

The pent-up demand will spur travel because Americans “still consider China safer than many other places in the world and they want to visit,” Zhu said.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s travel industry took a beating in 2003 and fought back valiantly. “We lost three months, and we are still down, but we are coming back,” said Shum, regional director-North America for the Hong Kong Tourism Board in Los Angeles.

From January through October 2003, 532,000 Americans visited Hong Kong, a drop of 35.5 percent over the same period in 2002.

At its worst point, last April and May, hotel occupancies in Hong Kong’s luxury hotels which typically enjoy occupancies in the 70s and 80s fell to 14 percent.

But thanks to aggressive marketing, Hong Kong managed to lure some Americans who can’t resist a good deal.

A two-for-one campaign sponsored by the bureau, five airlines and 29 tour operators offered radically discounted packages that brought in 25,000 travelers.

“It was quite a challenge for us but we were lucky because we had very strong partners, and the government adopted a good strategy of open and transparent communication, so we had trust from the media and consumer,” Shum said.

In September, the bureau launched a global promotion headed by actor Jackie Chan. Dozens of agents were invited to San Francisco’s Union Square for a lavish launch party.

Hong Kong will continue the campaign, called “Live It, Love It,” this year. But don’t expect dramatic deals like 2003. “Prices will be normalized,” Shum said.

The tourist board is also focusing on the 2004 ASTA World Congress, which is scheduled for Sept. 28-Oct. 3.

There’s an incentive program that offers a free trip to the Congress when agents sell Hong Kong packages. For details, visit


The plunge in tourism to China had big ramifications for Korea in 2003.

An estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of visitors to Korea also visit another Asian country, usually China and Hong Kong two SARS-impacted countries.

As a result, travel to Korea from the U.S. was down 20 percent in the first six months of the year even though there were no confirmed cases of SARS in Korea.

The arrival figures for the months that followed have not been released, but all indications point to improvement, said Monica Poling, a spokeswoman for the Korea National Tourism Organization in Los Angeles.

“We worked very closely with other Asian destinations post-SARS to encourage travel, and a lot of the airlines actively promoted Korea as a stopover and for add-on packages,” she said.

Korea also banded together with other Asian destinations through Extraordinary Asia, an informal group of Asian tourist offices based in the Western U.S. In the fall, the group conducted an eight-city “road show” for Western travel agents, drawing about 50 agents at each breakfast event.

“We got a lot of positive feedback,” Poling said. “Agents were extremely happy that we targeted them and grateful to get the information.”

The tourist office began advertising again in the early fall in consumer magazines after canceling its campaign during the height of the SARS epidemic.


Even though there were no confirmed SARS cases in Japan, the country still felt the negative impact of the disease. In fact, travel dropped 16.5 percent for the first six months of 2003 compared to the year before.

But Japan is looking ahead, making a big pitch to woo Americans in the coming years.

The government’s Visit Japan campaign has a goal of doubling its foreign visitors to 10 million a year by 2010. In 2002, Japan received about 5 million visitors, of which 732,000 were from the U.S.

The $17 million campaign which aims to change the image of Japan to a value-oriented, affordable and comfortable destination for foreigners targets the U.S. and four Asian countries with newspaper and magazine advertising.

The Japan National Tourist Office is working closely with U.S. tour operators, encouraging them to create new packages and giving them financial support for brochures and advertising.

Dozens of operators traveled on familiarization trips to Japan last fall, said Hidenao Takizawa, the JNTO executive director in San Francisco. Tour operators also are operating fam trips for travel agents, and the JNTO is planning agent seminars in San Francisco and Los Angeles in February and March.

“We have very great expectations for 2004,” said Takizawa. “U.S. tour operators are planning new packages and we feel the impact of SARS is behind us.”


Tourism Malaysia, the government-sponsored tourism agency, joined with airlines, hotels and related tourist companies to participate in travel trade and consumer shows in the Western U.S. after the SARS epidemic began spreading in neighboring Singapore, said Normasila Musa, vice president-west for Tourism Malaysia, based in Los Angeles.

From January through September, 94,652 Americans traveled to Malaysia, a decrease of 13.1 percent from the same period in 2002.

The country had no confirmed cases of SARS yet felt the sting of the disease because of proximity to infected countries such as Singapore and China.

However, Musa is optimistically expecting a full recovery this year, projecting 150,000 Americans will visit the country.


Like other Asian countries, Singapore started off 2003 on a positive note, with arrivals from the U.S. up in the first quarter.

Then every tourism official’s nightmare: SARS. Arrivals plummeted by 60 percent to 80 percent from April to June.

The small nation has still not completely recovered, but in November started seeing positive numbers, said Yeo, vice president-USA for the Singapore Tourism Board in Los Angeles.

“We might be down only by 10 percent or 15 percent for the year, which is quite a recovery when you consider where we were in the spring,” he said. From January through October, some 200,000 Americans visited Singapore.

“If we are optimistic, we could end the year with 260,000 Americans,” which would be a drop from the 350,000 to 380,000 American visitors the nation hosts in a typical year.

It could have been worse. Pumping up the arrivals were highly attractive packages this summer, such as $250 roundtrip flights from Los Angeles on Singapore Airlines. That promotion alone brought 3,000 passengers to Singapore in July.

The Singapore travel industry also worked with their colleagues in Malaysia to create packages, offering a $565 six-night plan including air and stays in four-star hotels.

For 2004, a campaign tied to the previous effort ( will be launched early this year, although details were not ready at press time.

“The numbers we are seeing for 2004 are very encouraging. We’ve had three bad years because of Sept. 11, the Iraq war and SARS and we hope to be back up to 400,000 Americans, which is (the number) what we had in 1999, a boom year for us,” Yeo said.


Like its neighbors in Asia, Taiwan’s travel industry was hurt by SARS.

Americans stayed away, with 208,780 arrivals from the U.S. to Taiwan from January through October 2003, a 32.35 percent drop from the same period in 2002.

Yet there was an increase in arrivals in September of about 6.5 percent compared to the previous September, showing a gradual recovery, said Mark Tsui, deputy director of the Taiwan Visitors Association in Los Angeles.

The island nation is hoping to stimulate interest by U.S. leisure travelers, which are the minority of its U.S. visitors the majority are business and ethnic travelers.

The government has declared 2004 “Visit Taiwan Year” and is promoting folk festivals, fairs and special travel desks for visitors.


Indonesia’s tourism industry was doubly damaged by the October 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali and by SARS.

Krishna Hannan, vice counsel for the Indonesian government in San Francisco, said figures are not available, but he believes there has been a bit of an improvement in tourism from the U.S. in the last few months.

“SARS had a big impact on Singapore because most of the flights from the U.S. to Indonesia are through Singapore and people were afraid to fly,” he said. The Indonesian government has turned to domestic tourism to boost its travel industry.


Thailand is in a good long-term position to reap the benefits of an upswing of travel by Americans to Asia, according to PATA, which is based in Bangkok.

“Thailand probably more than other Asian countries epitomizes the cultural diversity and exoticism of Asia because of its Buddhist religion and the fact it was a kingdom,” said PATA’s Ferguson.

A recent PATA report forecasts a slight increase in American tourism to Thailand, predicting 532,000 visitors in 2004, up from 528,000 in 2002.

According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, international arrivals dropped by 50 percent in the month of May, but by July the drop was only 5 percent. The TAT was not available to provide more information.

But one tour operator, Mark Sood, president of A Touch of Class, Woodland Hills, Calif., said Thailand did not suffer as drastic a travel downswing from SARS as its neighbors in Southeast Asia.

“Thailand recovered much faster and was not affected as much by SARS. It’s also zooming ahead of other Asian destinations” in 2004 sales, he said.


The Philippines is meeting its target for arrivals, due to an upsurge in the last three months of 2003, said Manny Ilagan, deputy director of the Philippine Tourism Office, Los Angeles.

The country’s tourism efforts focus largely on the Filipino-American communities in the U.S. and Americans traveling on business, the two groups which make up the vast majority of travelers to the Philippines.


Travel by Americans to Macau is picking up, according to Peggy Peterka, marketing manager of the Macau Government Tourist Office in Los Angeles.

“I don’t have the latest figures, but it looks like we may be back to normal,” she said.

Each year, about 60,000 Americans visit Macau, a special administrative region of China and a short ferry ride from Hong Kong.