Sign Up for Our Monthly Asia Newsletter
It has been months since the World Health Organization lifted
its advisory against travel to any Asian country afflicted by
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, www.travelwithpata.com,
with the latest travel advisories and travel deals and
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
“I think we’re going to see some dramatic improvement in numbers
in the first quarter of 2004 and into the summer,” said
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
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’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
An estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of visitors to Korea also
visit another Asian country, usually China and Hong Kong two
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
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
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
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
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
(www.singaporeroars.com) 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
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
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
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
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