Eye on Asia

Travel Agent magazine recently hosted an Eye on Asia roundtable at the Montage Beverly Hills to get the lowdown on travel trends to this fascinating region of the world. Below is a video of the informative exchange, followed by an edited transcript.


Roundtable Roundup:

Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: Welcome, everyone. Our conversation today will focus on U.S. consumers and how they are traveling throughout Asia. What are the booking patterns that you’re seeing?

Ken Fish, Absolute Travel: It varies and sometimes it’s hard to really determine the reason. Some are booking far out and in advance but then there are a lot of last-minute bookings, some as little as two to six weeks out. At the same time, other people are still making plans nine to 12 months in advance.

Evan Chan
Evan Chan of Strategie, Inc. and Trust Lin of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, Los Angeles.

Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: Does it vary by region?

Ken Fish, Absolute Travel: We’ve seen Japan coming back since last year; obviously it was a tough year. China continues to be strong for us as are India and the Himalayan countries. Sri Lanka has been emerging for a few years now, and I think we’re all looking forward to seeing what happens in Myanmar in particular because of the political situation. 

Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: Mike, Viking of course travels all parts of the world. How is Asia faring?

Mike Wiersema
Mike Wiersema of Viking River Cruises; Colleen Carter of Plaza Travel and Adrienne Forst of Protravel International.


Mike Wiersema, Viking River Cruises: Asia benefits from the fact that river cruising is just so popular; we’re booking 12 months out. We started China back in 2003 and that has become more and more popular. We have one large ship that can accommodate 260 passengers and does very, very well. It’s a little light in the summer months sometimes but China has been steadily growing. We just decided to try Vietnam and Cambodia about a year and a half ago. We listed it for the season late in November. In six weeks, we sold out the entire season. So, I think Vietnam and Cambodia will continue to be very, very popular and I see Viking investing in those destinations even more.

Colleen Carter, Plaza Travel: During the downturn, most of my corporate clients just kept to domestic travel, they didn’t spend to go overseas and they did a lot of telecommunicating. In 2011, it started picking up again, but the bookings were closer to their departures, two to four weeks out. This year they are starting to book a little further out and they are all traveling first class again; they had gone from first class to business class during the downturn. So it seems like it’s rebounding quite nicely. This year I’ve had quite a bit of travel again to Asia; to China and India and Japan, as well.

Roundtable participants reported that they are seeing more FIT business to Asia. A younger clientele tends to travel for a shorter period of time and seeks out deals while older travelers spend more time and money on their trips.


Adrienne Forst, Protravel International: Because I only do leisure travel, bookings are generally a year in advance, particularly for people who are planning FITs, not tours. They want to have time to alter and add to and delete from their itinerary. For cruises, I have bookings already for 2014. I’m finding a huge upsurge in Japan now. The pricing in Japan is so much higher than anywhere else in Asia, but people are still willing to spend now because they haven’t been there. So I think we have an enormous market to push.

Bill Flora, Hong Kong Tourist Board: For Hong Kong, fall travel bookings tend to be three to six months in advance for seniors; they definitely know where they want to go and are not necessarily deal-oriented. Then, largely due to the economy now and the deals out there, we see younger consumers, 35 plus to about 45 plus, looking for the deals. They want to go to Asia but they want the right price. They book anywhere from 30 days to two months out but the really interesting thing is they’re willing to vary where they go. Affluent seniors go to three destinations for 10-plus days; the younger ones are usually more in the seven- to 10-day range but they vary based on the best offers.

Mike Wiersema
Viking River Cruises’ Mike Wiersema says interest in Vietnam and Cambodia is high. Colleen Carter of Plaza Travel, right, says it’s often less expensive to fly to Asia than to Europe.


Margot Kong, Imperial Tours: The Olympics in 2008 was great PR for China but unfortunately they came at a really bad time. So prior to that we were seeing long lead times and since then lead times have shortened or disappeared. Since 2011, people have come back but are booking in much, much shorter windows. Luckily, we’re starting to see the longer bookings again, six months to a year, even further out, mainly for groups and for MICE. On the leisure side, we’re still seeing bookings pretty close in. A month or less is not unusual and for China, that’s very short. 

Shirley Tu, Macau Government Tourist Office: We basically have the same clientele as Hong Kong does, but a lot of people come to Macau not as their sole destination. So if they’re in Hong Kong and they decide they want to go to Macau, it’s a shorter lead time. What’s more interesting is that you’re getting an increase for MICE. Usually it’s a year, two years, three years out but in recent years, it’s been nine months, seven months out, so it’s shortened.

Bill Flora
Bill Flora of the Hong Kong Tourist Board updates Adrienne Forst of Protravel International on the new Hong Kong cruise port.


Trust Lin, Taiwan Tourism Bureau: According to our surveys, it takes about two months to get a booking before people decide to go to Taiwan. Taiwan used to be called “The Best-Kept Secret in Asia” by National Geographic. Only a few professionals know about how Taiwan is, so right now we are promoting to the general market. That’s why we are working very hard at travel shows and why we launched the Taiwan Travel Specialist training program. We all know selling Taiwan is really hard especially since our awareness is relatively low. So we call on our tour operators to sell Taipei plus Shanghai, or Taipei plus Hong Kong or Malaysia.

Evan Chan, Strategie, Inc.: From my time in the industry, for 14 years, everybody was booking a year out. They always took advantage of an early booking discount period, cashed in on “book early, save money” deals, but in recent years, from 2008 onward, we saw people looking for the best possible deal, so they kept on waiting until even 90 days out. Before I left, I was also seeing that people were looking a month out which is ridiculous because it takes a week to prepare a China visa.

Evan Chan
Evan Chan of Strategie, Inc., says a consumer survey indicates interest in travel to China is high. From left to right, Margot Kong, Imperial Tours; Shirley Tu, Macau Government Tourist Office; Chan; and Trust Lin, Taiwan Tourism Bureau, Los Angeles.


We distributed a questionnaire earlier this year at both the L.A. Times show and the Bay Area Travel Show. Strategie, Inc. was engaged by the CNTO for this project.

The average age of the respondents was 47.76 years old, their primary language was English. When we asked them which region of the world they are planning on visiting on their next vacation, 38.91 percent said Asia and 56.48 percent said their interest in visiting China was high, while 38.21 percent said their interest was moderate. As for their general impression of China, 83 percent said it was favorable, 17 percent said they were undecided. 

We asked how they would prefer to travel when visiting China, 57.99 percent said by group; 38.89 percent said independently and 3.13 percent said they’d do it as a sidetrip for business. In terms of researching and purchasing the trip, 64.75 percent said they’d do it via the Internet, while 22.30 percent said they’d book it via a travel agent. (12.95 percent said “Other.”)

The desired duration of their trip was an average 13.3 days, but 39.45 percent responded that the average budget per person would be between $1,000 and $1,999; 36.68 percent said it was between $2,000 and $2,999; and 18.34 percent said it was between $3,000 and $3,999. Just 5.54 percent said it was above $4,000.

Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: That’s a very interesting touch point for us, to consider the aspirational travelers to Asia who want to go but don’t realize they need a visa or what the cost of the flights is and that the actual experience of getting around is something they will need to invest in, which is why they need a travel advisor.

Let’s open it up a bit more and talk about if you’re seeing more FIT travelers or more group travelers to Asia.

Ken Fish
Ken Fish of Absolute Travel, left, and Mike Wiersema of Viking River Cruises.


Adrienne Forst, Protravel International: FIT is definitely the way to go at this point. People are tired of going in groups of 16 or 20 and from my standpoint, 99 percent of my clients, whether they are the super rich or the medium-priced travelers, are looking at FITs now. The flexibility of an FIT is about not having to be up at 7 a.m. to have breakfast because your tour is leaving at 8 which allows them to maybe sleep until 9, and there’s the ability to tell their driver, “We don’t want to do this today, we are tired.” That’s a huge advantage.

The children and the grandchildren of my wealthy clients are traveling more in the middle range, but they have learned about the FIT. They want the flexibility for a family of 10 going, grandma is paying for everybody but it’s strictly FIT. It’s cars and drivers picking them up and transferring them and arranging sightseeing in the area and then train tickets are purchased and they will be escorted to the train. And they have the ability to change at the last minute and not do much at all if they don’t want to.

Margot Kong, Imperial Tours: We do both small-group tours and FIT; since 2010 we’ve seen a huge pickup in FIT business and now our group business is actually quite small. With that said, in the past two weeks I’ve received an increase in the number of groups, so there are some people who can afford the FIT but they like traveling with other people. The other thing we’re starting to see more of is travel agencies putting together their own groups.

Bill Flora, Hong Kong Tourist Board: Overall, Asia is becoming even more of an FIT type of vacation, because when you look at our visitation, 95 percent come to Hong Kong or on a multi-destination trip. If you look at who they are, our research says almost 90 percent of them are FIT. So for Hong Kong, it’s basically an FIT market.

Trust Lin, Taiwan Tourism Bureau: For Taiwan, it’s probably a little bit different because we are new to the market. We have been seriously marketing to the U.S. market for less than a year. We see an increase in FITs but group tours are still popular because a lot of people who are first-time visitors to Taiwan don’t know where to go.

Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: Let’s discuss some of the new experiences clients might be able to enjoy in Asia.

Chris Coon
Chris Coon, Travel Agent magazine; Trust Lin, Taiwan Tourism Bureau, Los Angeles and Evan Chan, Strategie, Inc.


Trust Lin, Taiwan Tourism Bureau: For the past decade, we have been promoting to the general market and now we are going to promote that people can go there for a specific purpose, to learn Chinese or for something cultural [like] a cuisine tour. Our new concept is that locals know what is best for the tourist. So we have an online campaign to vote on what the top 10 townships or little cities are for a tourist. We’ll pick out 10 and start promoting them so the international visitor will be able to go there for a cultural tour or just to experience the local life. It’s very interesting to have all our people become our so-called tourism ambassadors. 

Fox News last year picked Taipei, our capital city, as a top 10 budget destination because the hotel prices are relatively low compared with other major Asian cities. The most amazing thing is that when international visitors or tourists go to Taiwan, they experience the hospitality of the friendly people there. So we will focus on the culture, the friendly people and the locals’ recommendations to market to the world.

Adrienne Forst, Protravel International: Do you promote to museums? Because you have a phenomenal museum [the National Palace Museum] there.

Trust Lin, Taiwan Tourism Bureau: The National Palace Museum in Taipei is actually recognized as one of the top five museums in the world. It has more than 650,000 pieces. They migrated from China to Taiwan during the civil war and those are actually treasures from the National Palace Museum in Beijing. Right now we are still working on a joint exposition with China. And I was told by tour operators that they might have a tour from here to go there just to see the show. 

Shirley Tu, Macau Government Tourist Office: Macau is relatively new to the market. When you see Macau, China, you think of China, and so not a lot of people know that we have wonderful colonial-style Portuguese structures. The food is the first fusion food in the world because when the Portuguese came over they went through Mozam-bique, Africa, then to Malaysia and then to Goa, India, so they brought all the spices and settled in China. That’s our heritage and that’s what we’ve been pushing in the U.S. market. 

Our newer hotels are not just about structure, most of them are like little museums. You can go into the different lobbies and see treasures from ancient China; The Grand Lisboa has a 50-carat diamond and emeralds and various ancient artifacts. At the MGM Macau, the lobby area has a Dali structure; there are a lot of his glass sculptures there, and the courtyard is built to look like one of the grand plazas in Portugal

The biggest news is the bridge that they’re building that’s going to be complete in 2016, between Hong Kong, Macau, and [Zhuhai], China. So once it’s built, you can drive from Hong Kong to Macau in 20 minutes. That’s going to offer access to a lot more people.

Adrienne Forst, Protravel International: Do you need a visa to go?

Shirley Tu, Macau Government Tourist Office: You don’t need a visa to go to Hong Kong or Macau. And a group of three can get a visa to go to southern China for $20; it takes 24 hours.

Margot Kong, Imperial Tours: We have a long list of unique experiences, which we call Imperial Moments, but I’ve whittled them down. One of our specialties is art so one of our Imperial Moments is we have access to a major collection in Beijing worth between $250 million and $300 million. It’s curated by two Chinese-Americans who live in Beijing now, and so not only do you have access to this amazing collection of traditional Chinese paintings, but they also teach you how to read, or they call “listen to” Chinese paintings. It’s kind of like Chinese Art 101. Then in Yunnan province, near Lijiang, we now have access to a Domba school where young children are trained how to be village shaman, so it’s really interesting looking into the culture in the minority tribes. In Shanghai, we have what we call China’s three traditions, where we visit a Buddhist temple, a Confucianist temple and a Taoist temple. And we compare not only the architecture but also the thinking. So by the end of these three visits you have a really good understanding of how these divergent teachings shaped Chinese thinking and culture. And then lastly, we can access a private members’ club where a nationally renowned calligrapher will teach you about the five ancient disciplines, so these are the arts of Confucianist scholars, ranging from flower arranging, traditional music, calligraphy, incense appreciation, and tea cup fortune reading.

Bill Flora, Hong Kong Tourist Board: In Hong Kong we’re known for our skyline, but really one of our greatest arrays of experiences is based on our biggest secret, which is the stunning natural beauty of the city. People in the U.S. don’t realize how green Hong Kong is. They don’t realize that 40 percent of the land is parks and that there are 260 outlying islands. There are some really interesting things you can do; one of the easiest ones is to hike all the way around Victoria Peak and to see the beautiful views of Hong Kong. Another stunning one is taking a private car out to Tai O, which is the fishing village; you take little boats out and you see the Asian pink dolphins. And probably the neatest thing I’ve ever done since I’ve started to go to Hong Kong was taking the ferry over to Lamma Island where you can hike from one side to the other and it ends with this incredible seafood lunch that you have right on the bay. So natural beauty is something that we’re trying to capitalize on.

The other thing that many U.S. consumers don’t know about it is the Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival, which that takes place from November 1 through November 4, which we market as “the epicurean festival with the world’s most stunning backdrop” because it’s directly on the West Kowloon side of the waterfront, so you’re looking at Victoria Harbor and the Hong Kong skyline. It comprises the leading wineries from throughout the world. Bordeaux was one of the first areas that came in, they always have a large sponsorship, and we’d like to get more people from the U.S. to come. Last year we had 170,000 people attending, so it can be a very large event. For highly affluent customers, we have a grand tasting tent. We have the best food of Hong Kong there and only the crème de la crème of the world’s wines. 

Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: That’s a good insider tip. Can you talk a little about the cruise port that will have all the green space? 

Bill Flora, Hong Kong Tourist Board: It’s being built on the site of the Kai Tak airport, which a lot of people may remember because of how, shall I say, adventuresome it used to be to fly into Hong Kong. It’s designed by Sir Norman Foster, and it wasn’t designed just to be a cruise terminal, but as one of the stunning icons on the skyline and to really elevate the cruise experience. So the entire third floor of it is a large rooftop garden overlooking Victoria Harbor at the Hong Kong skyline. It’s also developed to be a major attraction for very large events. It will be easy for folks to get from the Kowloon side over to Hong Kong, there will be very quick motor coach service as well as launches and ferries that will take you right across. That’s something that we realized that we need to do very well because the idea of having that port is to enhance the experience and to get people to where they want to go. That will be opening in mid-2013 and it will be able to handle [Royal Caribbean’s] Oasis-class ships, the largest ships in the world.

Colleen Carter, Plaza Travel: I think the most exciting thing is the new aircraft from Singapore Airlines and ANA with the suites; this has been a real attraction for my high-end travelers. This has opened up the Asian travel market for more corporate executives to visit their clients personally. They enjoy the privacy and feel very refreshed when they arrive.

Mike Wiersema, Viking River Cruises: In Asia, we built the brand-new Emerald last year, which is a beautiful ship, and it has two Explorer Suites that are 600 square feet, which are very nice. I think it’s a proven product over there. At the end of this year we will have had 11,000 passengers to China, which is a pretty significant contribution. We do a lot of pre- and post-tours to Hong Kong, so we’re excited about that product and being able to be very big in China, which is why of course we entered Vietnam and Cambodia. A lot of people aren’t aware that we sponsor a children’s school in China, and that we take our passengers there to see the kids perform; we have a way of giving back to the people. This is something that we’re also going to be doing in Vietnam and Cambodia because it’s just kind of the Viking way. We’ve only done about 3,000 passengers to the Mekong area, but we’ve been there very briefly. I would not be surprised if we built our own ship within the next year or so because we wanted to at least try the product out there and see what the demand is.

Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: Ken, I know you do FIT; is there anything you could share that’s new?

Ken Fish, Absolute Travel: Margot, those are some great examples in China. People talk about experiential travel a lot, but by definition, travel is experiential. Our job is to create these experiences. When we started in Vietnam and Cambodia, it was important just to get people food that they could eat, and so we had to be on the ground to find the restaurants. That led us 20 years ago, to create culinary trips. Of course, every Asian destination is by definition a culinary experience and there are so many opportunities, whether it’s meeting a top chef or going to a market or into someone’s home and really learning about the cuisine or maybe trying your hand at creating a meal of your own. 

But beyond culinary experiences, as Adrienne said, you tailor to special interests, you fulfill special interest requests. We also have a menu of experiences that we can offer; as an example, you’re in India getting a sitar lesson on the riverbank, or in Bali, meeting a mystic healer who will introduce you to your past or future lives. Generally speaking, wellness tours are something that we’ve gotten quite a bit of response to. Thailand, Bali and India were the first three that we introduced, and we’ve had a great, great response. People don’t have to be so tuned into the whole experience, but it certainly is a significant part of the trip. Private access is very important at the top-end, so that people know they’re doing things that other people can’t do. Maybe that’s a private tour of a museum or a gallery or a private collection. People enjoy that. 

Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: Is there anything making it easier to sell Asia or to get around Asia?

Colleen Carter, Plaza Travel: The prices for business and first-class air to Asia from the U.S. market are by far less than to Europe. And that’s a real selling point. You frequently can use mileage for Asia, because there’s more availability, than to Europe. So I think if the tour operators and the visitor bureaus can promote the fact that Asia flights from the U.S. are by far less expensive, it is going to help to promote the area.


Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine: That’s huge. You have to get them there first before you can do any of the things that we’re talking about. Anyone else?

Bill Flora, Hong Kong Tourist Board: We have one that’s kind of different. It’s 144-hour six-day visa that gets you into southern China. One of the key strategic things that I was working on is with the Guangdong province to encourage more travel from Hong Kong to Guangdong. So this was developed about a year and a half ago, and basically you can get it from land operators in Hong Kong. It’s very easy to get. It gives you six days or 144 hours to go through the Pearl River Delta and the Guangdong province area. There are some beautiful natural areas in that part of China that the most savvy U.S. visitors to China haven’t seen, which are things like Danxia Mountain, China’s grand canyon, Buddha caverns, things that’ll just blow people away. So we like to tout the visa a lot because we know that Hong Kong is part of a multi-destination tour, therefore we need to make it easier for our U.S. consumers to be able to get to southern China, to Macau, to the Pearl River Delta.

Shirley Tu, Macau Government Tourist Office: I just came back from our annual meeting and one big thing that came out from every country that attended—we have 17 countries within Asia—is the need for a low-cost carrier within Asia. That’s what a lot of governments as well as private companies are looking into because there’s that demand within Asia as well as when you get to Asia from the United States, you need flights to connect. 

Trust Lin, Taiwan Tourism Bureau: Because Taiwan is an island country, we are promoting to the cruise industry in a different way. We do marketing compensation to the cruise lines. For each visitor who goes to Taiwan by cruise line, the cruise line is compensated up to $25. So if you’re a cruise liner with 2,000 people, you can get up to $50,000. We also provide 30-day visas free for U.S. passport holders.

The Players:

Ken Fish, president, Absolute Travel:

Based in New York, it is the first U.S.-based luxury travel company to sell travel to Vietnam and Cambodia. “What defines us as a company is our staff is passionate and knowledgeable about Asia. We have a network around the world and we provide our clients with unique experiences.”

Mike Wiersema, VP, national account sales, Viking River Cruises:


Launched in 1997 by Torstein Hagen with four ships in Russia, Viking is now the world’s largest river cruise operator with 31 ships as of next year. “We have a brand-new ship in China and we entered the market on the Mekong, in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam last year to try to expand our product into that region.”

Colleen Carter, travel advisor, Plaza Travel, Los Angeles, whose annual revenue is $50 million:


“I’m a corporate travel consultant; my clients consist of venture capital firms and technology firms. As an agency, we have a large entertainment production division. We do a lot of leisure and cruise travel as well. I sell a lot of Asia; China, including Shanghai and Beijing.”

Adrienne Forst, VP, leisure sales, Protravel International, which generates $850 million in revenue a year:

Forst is based in Beverly Hills. “My first trip to Asia was in 1984 and I’ve seen an enormous change, particularly in China. It’s just unbelievable. And because I love Asia so much, I’m really able to promote it.”

Bill Flora, director/USA, Hong Kong Tourist Board:

His role is to reinforce Hong Kong as one of the world’s premier destinations. “I’m also lucky to work with a talented crew both in the U.S. and in Hong Kong. Our primary job is to encourage both tourism and MICE visitation to Asia’s world city.”

Margot Kong, VP, marketing and business development, Imperial Tours, which focuses on the top end of the market in China, doing leisure as well as MICE:

“What makes us different is that we were founded by westerners who live in China. This gives us the best of the both worlds because we understand the western clientele and luxury mind-set but we also know China intimately.”

Shirley Tu, marketing manager, Macau Government Tourist Office:


“I’m responsible for the leisure and MICE markets in the U.S. Not a lot of people know that we have wonderful colonial-style Portuguese structures and the first fusion food in the world.”

Evan Chan, Strategie, Inc.:

He spent 14 years with a major tour operator to Asia before founding Strategie, Inc., a brand marketing company specializing in the travel industry assisting NTOs in increasing their nation’s brand equity and awareness in the U.S.

Trust Lin, director of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, Los Angeles (go2taiwan.net):


“Last year we welcomed 6 million international visitors to Taiwan. Within the past five years, we’ve had a lot of international visitors. So I think you’d say it’s booming in Asia, especially in Taiwan.”

Ruthanne Terrero, VP/editorial director, Questex Hospitality & Travel, which includes Travel Agent magazine