When West looks East
MOST Western tourists in Asia used to huddle together on package tours. The cultures and languages were just too daunting for them to strike out on their own. But today, such travellers are increasingly sophisticated and willing to go on their own or with smaller tour groups (often as few as a dozen people) to offbeat destinations.
''It's not like 20 years ago when nobody spoke English in Asia, and when visitors needed a guide who would also be their translator. Now it's easy to go on your own,'' said May Leung, the manager of a leading Seattle-based travel agency.
Leung says many of her clients are seeking bargain air fares to Asia, not travel advice: ''They've done their research. They're sophisticated travellers, and they know where they want to go.'' The Asian tourism industry is booming with in-bound traffic from western countries, and is catering to holiday-makers and business people with better air services, a flotilla of luxury cruise ships, high-class hotels and the widespread use of English.
Also growing are the ''soft adventure'' tours - everything from caving and jungle-trekking in Borneo, mountain-biking in Mongolia to travelling the rivers of Papua New Guinea.
In Indonesia, one Westerner has even started a business for scuba divers who want the ultimate in underwater adrenalin-boosts - swimming with sharks.
He drops them in areas known to be infested. Needless to say, they must sign disclaimers.
The worldwide travel experts Thomas Cook are branching out particularly in China because of the upsurge in interest from western tourists and businessmen.
Mr Michael O'Sullivan, general manager, Hong Kong and China, for Thomas Cook, said the firm had been established in China since 1986 with a partnership with a Chinese company in Beijing.
But recently it opened an office in Shanghai in another partnership deal with China Travel Services.
''Travel to China is increasing all the time, and we are looking at expanding there,'' he said.
''In Shanghai there is even a shortage of hotels, and there has been a rate increase of 30 to 40 per cent. It can't cope with the demand.'' Thomas Cook is looking at introducing more unusual travel opportunities in China this year, especially with the small groups of independent travellers in mind.
Mr O'Sullivan said travellers were now looking for more than the normal package tour.
Thomas Cook was able to organise meals on parts of the Great Wall away from the droves of tourists, meals in private homes with Chinese families with an interpreter, and even arrange a police escort if necessary in China.
For an increasing number of Asian-Americans, Asia is becoming a place to travel to find family roots.
Travel to Asia by Americans in particular has remained strong, despite the lingering recession in the United States and competition from cheap fares to Europe.
''A lot of Asia's popularity has to do with its exotic appeal and the very high quality of service, particularly in hotels,'' said Graham Hornel, former director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Asian Travel Association, now a travel-marketing consultant.
''But other than China, where the big group tours remain strong, the trend in Asia is swinging to smaller groups and independent travellers.'' Hong Kong and Bangkok are still high on the agenda with Americans looking for leisure travel, said Advance Travel's Leung and Pramila Luthra, manager of the Asian Sky Travel Service in Seattle. They both specialise in Asian travel.
Despite being less attractive than it once was for bargain-hunters, Hong Kong was still a big draw for shoppers, particularly before Christmas; Bangkok was a destination in its own right and a gateway to much of Asia, including Nepal.
Indonesia, including Bali, is attracting a growing number of Western travellers, and for businessmen, Japan remains high on the list, in spite of its economic woes.
For the truly adventurous trekkers (including those who have already ''done Nepal''), remote Bhutan is becoming a choice destination, said Luthra of the Asian Sky agency.
The numbers of tourists there are restricted and visas are so expensive that only the well-healed can afford to go.
For business people, the stampede is on in Vietnam, and Singapore is aggressively positioning itself as the hub for Southeast Asian cruises, said Hornel.