Eighty years ago, the Asian landscape would have been almost entirely unrecognizable to today’s traveler. But even in the 1930s, when most Asian countries were still underdeveloped colonies and, in some cases, thoroughly inaccessible, there was a small but flourishing tourism scene in the region. Thanks to small cruise ports and a colonial interest, many European travelers were able to make their way toward the exotic Far East.
In the last 20 years, the region has recreated itself as a modern, thriving tourist hub that continues to climb the list as a top location for travelers.
Vietnam is perhaps the most transformed destination in Asia since the 1930s. In fact, throughout the latter half of the 20th century, it was seen as a destination to avoid, due to its war-torn past. For a 1970s traveler, to envision a vacation to Vietnam is similar to a traveler today possibly learning in 40 years that Mogadishu is great for its beaches or that Kabul has a fantastic bar scene.
Prior to the war in the 1960s, Vietnam did have a flourishing tourism scene, dating to the late 19th century, when the first hotels were built to cater to colonial French society. The Continental opened in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in the 1880s, and the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi opened in 1901 as Le Metropole.
In the early 20th century, Vietnam was a destination for the cruising elite. From 1906 to 1937, a service boat called the Emeraude sailed Ha Long Bay carrying French tourists. Today, a replica of the ship is available to tourists visiting the area.
The scene changed drastically in the 1960s. Fodor’s Guide to Japan and East Asia 1969 warned tourists against traveling to the country, claiming Saigon was no place to visit. Taxi drivers would charge 20 times the normal fare, hotel rooms were taken up mostly by soldiers and journalists, and the garbage collectors had run out of town, leaving the streets filthy.
However, the embassies in South Vietnam would continue to send out brochures with colorful images of yachting on the Saigon River, trying to lure tourists to the country. According to the Fodor’s guidebook, “No one seems interested in discouraging the occasional tourist, simply, perhaps because of the political necessity to pretend that all is going well in Vietnam. But all is not going well and hasn’t been for years.”
During this period, the top tourist attractions for the few tourists willing to visit the country were Tu Do Street, the botanical gardens and zoo, the tomb and temple of Marshal Le Van Duyet, Cholon, the Ben Thanh Market and the flower gardens.
Tourism, as we know it today in Vietnam, didn’t take shape until the 1980s when the country underwent economic reforms in 1986. By the 1990s, tourists were flocking to the country on shopping tours, but back then none of the hotels ranked above two stars. Today, Vietnam is booming with luxury beach resorts, escorted tours, cruise ports, museums and restaurants, allowing the country to compete with world-class destinations, which was unimaginable less than 40 years ago.
Tourism to Hong Kong in the 1930s was ahead of much of Asia, though the landscape looked much different. Back then, the city was known as Victoria, with Hong Kong referring to the green, mountainous island. The streets were packed with sedan chairs, rickshaws and early automobiles, while the rest of the island was dotted with fishing villages. The city was already a gateway to China, and, having been one of the few free ports in the world, also a destination for commerce and trade.
Travelers used to stay in the 19th-century hotels that were constructed when the British first occupied the island (such as The Victoria Hotel, New Victoria Hotel and the King Edward Hotel). Today, the only remaining historical hotel in Hong Kong is The Peninsula, which was built in 1928.
Modern tourism was not organized until the 1950s, following the founding of Cathay Pacific. Visitors to the island were a meager 50,000 but after the Hong Kong Tourism Authority was set up in 1957, the numbers began to increase rapidly.
In 1958, a lengthened airport runway was unveiled, and five years later the city welcomed The Hong Kong Hilton, the Mandarin Oriental and the President.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Hong Kong became a highly desired destination. In fact, in 1987, 10 million passengers passed through Kai Tak Airport. Today, the region is known for its gastronomy, culture, shopping and history, and is still the major gateway to the rest of Asia.
In the 1930s, Bangkok had become a major port of call for many World Cruises. In fact, the city was known to welcome five ships per year, each carrying around 500 passengers. Most of the passengers were either from England or France who were keen to see colonies of their countries.
Officially, tourism to Thailand began in 1957 and three years later, the Tourism Authority of Thailand was established. The state of tourism today is courtesy of the support from the Thai government. The industry is now the country’s greatest source of foreign exchange revenue.
Due to Singapore’s maritime location, it has been welcoming foreign traders since the early 1900s, including those from neighboring China, Malaysia and India. This has made it the cultural melting pot that it is today.
There was a major immigration boom in the late 1930s when the country was still under British rule. The British built public buildings and hotels while the Muslim, Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu built mosques, temples and shrines, which resulted in a gorgeous juxtaposition of cultural landmarks.
Tourism began flourishing in Singapore in the 1970s and ’80s, when it promoted itself as Instant Asia, inviting visitors to experience this potpourri of Asian cultures. Cultural events such as the “light-up” festivals in Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam and along Orchard Road helped draw in numbers.
This has been a landmark year for Singapore, with the country welcoming over 1 million visitors in July and the dynamic Marina Bay Sands resort and World Sentosa integrated resorts opening their doors. The Singapore Tourism Board expects 17 million in global visitor arrivals by 2015.