Sun, 08 Jun 2003

Asia primed for the fight to lure back wary visitors

Asia News Network

With the battle against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) seemingly in control, Asia is abuzz with a new campaign to win tourists back.

Setting aside regional rivalries, Asian countries are teaming up to bring back travelers to enjoy the tourism bounty that nations here have to offer.

With fares at all-time lows, never-heard off discounts across the region and special festivals, hope rests anew that the medical precautions and cleanliness drive will put minds at ease, and, of course, continue to keep SARS at bay.

There's a general agreement that the task ahead is a daunting one and may be best handled together.

Passenger booking data from Asia's largest air ticketing and reservations company, Abacus International, shows that the destinations most affected by SARS -- China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam -- suffered a drop of 58 percent in the first four months of this year, compared to the last.

Overall, the region's suffered a 20 percent drop in flight bookings in the same period but with a 44 percent decline in the month of April.

Taking the initiative, tourism industry giants, the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) and the International Air Travel Association have joined hands to launch a six-figure sum campaign to get people traveling again.

A total of 102 regional industry players including 27 airlines, 11 hotel chains and the national tourism organizations of Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, and Taipei met in Singapore last week (may 27), and details are being worked out.

Ongoing national campaigns in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore will be knitted together while others will be launched.

"Asia's brand image has been damaged and we have to patch it up," said Ken Scott, PATA managing director of communications.

While some have taken the bull by the horns in containing the spread of the disease, others have been slow, he said.

The challenge, Scott believes, will be to put together a global public relations campaign to ""get the right message across".

This is the mantra sweeping across Asia, from Beijing to Bangkok to Tokyo, as tourism officials and the industry pull out all stops to lure the international traveler and the domestic ones as well.

Countries are pulling together celebrities, advertising gurus, anyone with brain power and charisma to both market Asia as a SARS safe tourism spot and to coax even the locals to take a break.

The government is offering soft-interest loans to the tourism industry to cope, while aggressive belt tightening is underway to cope with the hit to regional economies.

In China, the government has offered six billion yuan worth of soft loans to those in the tourism industry to allow them to come up with schemes to woo tourists. It has also promised to temporarily waive off taxes and administrative fees.

Beijing will also be the site of a regional conference in July to discuss the sharing of tourism resources.

As part of its belt tightening measures, the country's three major domestic carriers Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines have decided to delay taking delivery of new aircraft.

In the Philippines, Manila International Airport is offering a 50 percent discount on parking fees to foreign airlines and between 10 percent to 15 percent on landing and departure fees for a short period.

Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon, a man known for his boundless energy and the current chairman of PATA, is also eying the World Tourism Organization's Crisis Management Summit in Manila from June 16 to June 20 to sell his country.

One of the highlights of his pitch is a WOW Philippines program, which describes the different experiences tourists can encounter in the country (

Thailand, which was a World Health Organization SARS-free country but suffered a blow to its tourism nevertheless, is promising a huge sum as financial compensation should a visitor contract SARS.

Thai Airways International would pay US$100,000 to anyone who catches SARS while flying with the airline.

This is part of a multi-million baht six-month promotional campaign approved by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in mid- May.

Thai Airways International has also teamed up with the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Thai Hotels Association and Association of Thai Travel Agents to lure tourists with the launch of special price tour packages called "Thailand Smile Plus".

The three-month campaign, seeking to attract about 50,000 new tourists, has hotels offering a free-stay night for every one night paid for, as well as discounts of between 20 percent to 50 percent at golf courses, spas and resorts and a lucky draw.

Bangkok Airways, Tourism Authority of Thailand and Samui Tourism Association are also working on a first-ever island carnival in Asia in July.

Airline CEO Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth is hoping to convince governments in the Indochina region to give a one-time visa for all member country visits.

Malaysia has roped in Taiwanese pop idol Jay Chou, who performed live in the country on May 17, to be the country's latest tourism ambassador.

Tourism Minister Datuk Paduka Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir personally led a delegation to India to encourage Indians to visit Malaysia in mid-May, while promotional campaigns in the Middle East are also being stepped up.

Tourism Malaysia also plans to take part in some 20 international travel fairs over the next one month, including the Arab Travel Trade Fair in Dubai, JATA Fair in Yokohama, World Travel Mart in London and the International Travel Fair of China in Kunming.

Within the country, state governments are organizing local festivals to boost tourism.

The Tourism Board in Sarawak hopes to capitalize on the upcoming Gawai Dayak festival to lure more visitors to the state.

In Singapore, which celebrated its removal from the WHO list of SARS-affected countries with a S$20,000 bash at Boat Quay, the draw currently is the Great Singapore Sale.

Singapore Airlines is offering competitive fares to popular destinations, even as it tries to cope with its financial loss because of both SARS and the Iraq war. Ministers and top civil servants have settled for a 10 percent wage cut to help out the country's coffers.

Even as the effort gets underway, countries in the region are generally in agreement that it could take up to three months to ensure regular tourism inflows.

For some nations, though the wait could be longer.

The Vietnam National Administration for Tourism (VNAT), for instance, is yet to secure a VND10 billion assistance from the government to finance a national campaign to win back foreign visitors' confidence in Vietnam.

Amid the struggle, however, some countries such as Japan, South Korea and India, find themselves somewhat better positioned to market themselves, with hardly any incidence of SARS.

The South Korean government, for instance, is planning to stage a wide range of international publicity campaigns, including television advertisements, sending off promotional delegations and hosting Korean folk festivals.

In New Delhi, the country's international airline Air India and the national carrier Indian Airlines have teamed up to host packages for every class of traveler, with tourism officials keeping an eye out for conferences being shifted from other Asian locations.

The battle has only just begun.