SAR residents are becoming more adventurous and agents are expecting new offbeat package destinations to take off this year, according to Richard Willis, chairman (outbound) for the Hong Kong Association of Travel Agents (HATA). Last year saw more locals taking short-haul holidays, with lower package deal prices making the market extremely competitive, Willis says. China in particular saw a big increase in visitors from the SAR and Willis believes the region will get a boost this year with more expats coming to Hong Kong to work in connection with China's acceptance into the World Trade Organisation. They'll take the opportunity to explore the countries around them. Chinese travellers are becoming more independent, and many are now confident enough in their ability to speak English to make their own way, says Willis, who recalls that Manila and Bangkok used to be the main destinations for locals. So where will they be heading this year? 'They are looking towards exotic destinations like Iran and Syria, whose governments are working hard to promote tourism,' says Willis. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has badly hit tourism in surrounding countries, but travel agents say tourists are not being targeted. Gulf Air recently offered to take journalists from Hong Kong to the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria in an effort to prove their point. If the upcoming peace talks are successful, then tour operators expect a tourism boom in that region this year. Brian Smith, general manager of Travel Advisers, agrees that Hong Kongers are broadening their outlook. 'Hong Kong people used to be interested mainly in local package deals, but they are now being influenced in their choice by the Internet, television channels like Discovery and National Geographic and bookshops which have a huge variety of travel guides in both English and Chinese,' he says. Tourism is the world's biggest industry and with millions swamping the most popular destinations annually, discerning Hong Kongers are looking for destinations that are as yet unspoiled by tourism, says Smith. He agrees that Syria and Iran will become hot destinations. Another tip he gives for the near future is Libya, which is building up infrastructure for tourism. 'Cuba is also becoming hugely attractive and is very cheap, and Madagascar and Namibia [formerly Southwest Africa] are new options,' says Smith. 'Now is the time to go to these places. If you leave it too late they will end up the same as everywhere else.' Once a destination became a hit with the package tour market, it could soon lose its appeal. 'South America is also becoming popular,' Smith adds. 'The airfare of around $11,000 is not that much higher than a fare to Europe and generally, Latin American countries are fairly cheap.' Argentina, Chile and Brazil were picking up in popularity as exotic destinations, though political problems were affecting Peru. Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, may begin to take off this year as it will be one of the best places from which to see the total eclipse on June 21. Hong Kong agents took a bit of a pounding last year on the long-haul market. They are pleased there are no global events on the horizon this year. Package-deal specialists here suffered because in Europe rooms were few and far between during the European Nations soccer tournament, which forced prices higher. The Olympic Games in Sydney had a similar knock-on effect, and the 2000 Expo in Hannover, Germany, which agents had hoped would be a big dollar earner with Lufthansa flights out of Hong Kong, turned out to be a flop. The world is becoming smaller, but if you really want to find a place where space is guaranteed, you might want to contact The Polar Travel Company, which is based in the United Kingdom. They have sent us their brochure for this year and plan tours to the North Pole. Check out their Web site: www.polartravel.co.uk Happy travelling!