Rebuilding Asia Tourism 7-7-2003

Hong Kong Among First Locations to Roll Out Aggressive Deals

By: Lisa Jennings

As soon as the World Health Organization declared Asia virtually SARS-free late last month, the Hong Kong Tourism Board launched an enthusiastic campaign to mobilize U.S. travel agents.

In terms of products, there are plenty to sell, with a slew of two-for-one offers starting as low as $888, including air.

Airlines last month began restoring flights halted during the SARS outbreak, and the Hong Kong Airport Authority is reporting a steady resumption of passenger arrivals.

Flush with new government funding to seed the city’s economic recovery post-SARS, the tourism board is planning a two-month-long celebration, beginning July 13, to draw tourists, followed by another seven months of festivities to “welcome back the world.”

But despite the many attractive offers, agents and suppliers say travel to Asia has only begun to trickle back, and any rebound will likely be slow.

On June 24, when the WHO dropped the remaining advisories against nonessential travel to Asia, the Hong Kong Tourism Board staged an elegant by-invitation-only dinner at the Peninsula Hotel in Los Angeles for agents with a proven track record for selling Hong Kong.

With suppliers offering dozens of deals, the mood was optimistic, and agents welcomed the tourism board’s support. But both suppliers and agents said travelers were not ready to return to Asia.

“Business has been very slow,” said Vivian Bao, tour manager for China Travel Service USA. “I sent out 100 e-mails with promotions this week and got only three responses.”

“I have given up hope for this year. But I believe next year will be better.” Evan Chan, China division director for Ritz Tours, agreed, saying those who thought the floodgates would open with a rush of pent-up travelers were wrong.

“It’s coming back in sprinklings,” he said. “But it’s not going to be quick. The important thing now is to instill confidence.”

Travel to Asia is slow, but it’s there, said agent Bev Zukow, president of First Travel of California and an ASTA area director.

“It’s up to the agency community to get this going,” she added, saying agents need to suggest and advertise.

“It’s just a matter of getting the public moving,” she said.

That’s the goal of the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s recovery plan. Officials hope U.S. tourists lured in by low prices will be hooked by the planned festivities. July 13 through Sept. 15 has been declared the “Welcome Months,” during which U.S. travelers will be entitled to VIP treatment, discounts, museum passes and tour opportunities, from free tea appreciation classes to free Duk Ling junk rides.

The highlight of the month is “Welcome Day” on Aug. 17, when Hong Kong will be awash with celebrities, fireworks and gala celebrations.

A laser-and-video show on Victoria Harbour will debut with two shows nightly through Sept. 15, and city leaders will “affirm the safety of Hong Kong to the world.”

The end of the Welcome Month period, however, will also likely bring an end to the many deals and discounts available.

Though prices are expected to return to pre-SARS levels, or higher, tourism officials plan to continue festivities to draw tourists over the next seven months with such events as the Mid-Autumn Lanterns Display (September), Fire Dragon Dance (Sept. 11-13), international fireworks competition (October), Chris- tmas Winterfest (December), and a nighttime Chinese New Year Parade (Jan. 22, 2004).

The Hong Kong government unveiled a HK$1 billion (US$1.5 billion) economic relief package to rekindle confidence in the city as a hub for tourism and business, but it’s not yet clear how much of that funding will be used to promote Hong Kong travel in the United States.

Still, even a trickle of business is welcome at companies like Grand Holidays, which was forced to reduce staffing during the outbreak. Last week, staffing returned to pre-SARS levels.

Chan, of Ritz Tours, said he still has hope for late fall.

“We’re waiting to see if September, October and November will see a mini-boom.”