Forget the bug, enjoy the fare

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 08 Jun 2003

From the Asia News Netwok

WITH fares on 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 keep the SARS bug 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 reservation company, Abacus International, shows that the destinations most affected by SARS – China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam – showed a drop of 58% in the first four months of this year, compared to the last. 

Overall, the region suffered a 20% drop in flight bookings in the same period – but with a 44% 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 travelling. 

A total of 102 regional industry players, including 27 airlines, 11 hotel chains and the national tourism organisations of Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, and Taipei, met in Singapore last week 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, the managing director of communications for PATA. 

While some have taken the bull by the horns, others have been slow, he said, referring to the battle region-wide to contain the spread of the disease. 

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 traveller 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 deal with the hit to regional economies. 

Here’s a snapshot: 

ڈIn Beijing, 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 and has also promised to temporarily waive taxes and administrative fees. 

Researchers have described the impact as the most dramatic prolonged shutdown of the travel industry since 1989 when pro-democracy protestors were crushed around Tiananmen Square. 

But Beijing is fighting back and will host 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, the Manila International Airport is offering a 50% discount on parking fees to foreign airlines and 10%-15% on landing and departure fees for a short period. 

Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon, a man known for his boundless energy, who is also holding the chairmanship of PATA, is also eyeing the World Tourism Organisation’s Crisis Management Summit in Manila, being held in his city from June 16-20, to sell the Philippines. 

Thailand, which remained a World Health Organisation SARS-free country, but suffered a knock on tourism nevertheless, is promising a huge sum as financial compensation, should a visitor contract SARS. 

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

This is part of a Baht multi-million, 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 a special price tour package called “Thailand Smile Plus”. 

The three-month campaign that seeks to attract about 50,000 new tourists has hotels offering a night of free-stay for every one night paid for, discounts of between 20% and 50% 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. 

The airline’s chief executive officer 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. 

Culture, Arts and 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 used local festivals to boost tourism.  

While the Tourism Board in Sarawak capitalised on the Gawai Dayak festival to lure more visitors to the state, Sabah promoted the native Pesta Kaamatan or harvest festival. 

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

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 – while ministers and top civil servants have settled for a 10% wage cut, to boost the national kitty. 

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 VND10bil assistance from the government to finance a national campaign to win back foreign visitors’ confidence in Vietnam. 

Likewise in Indonesia, the current pressures are to resolve the separatist Aceh struggle which is putting a squeeze on funding available to promote tourism. 

Amid the struggle, however, some countries such as Japan, South Korea and India, find themselves somewhat better positioned to market themselves, with hardly any outbreak or the number of cases in single numbers. 

The South Korean government, for instance, is planning to stage a wide range of international publicity campaigns including TV advertisements, sending off publicity delegations and host many more 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 traveller as tourism officials keep an eye out for conferences being shifted from other Asian locations. 

The battle’s only just begun.  

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