Originally created 08/15/04

Asian tour operators back on track with healthy growth



HONG KONG -- When SARS turned Hong Kong into a city of fear and tourists canceled bookings by the thousands, one top hotel sought business by offering discount packages - including free transportation in a Rolls-Royce.

Occupancy had plunged to less than 10 percent at the Peninsula, a legendary haunt of the rich and famous that was hit hard along with all Hong Kong hotels as SARS spread and the World Health Organization warned people to stay away.

Now that SARS is gone, the industry is recovering. The Peninsula was 70 percent full during the first half of 2004. Guests who want complimentary rides to and from the airport in one of the hotel's 14 Rolls-Royces must shell out at least $720 per night for a suite.

Round trip for people with cheaper rooms costs $170 per round trip.

"Things are really rebounding and we're doing very, very well," Peninsula spokeswoman Sian Griffiths said.

Calling the SARS epidemic a nightmare for Asian tourism would be an understatement. Hotel occupancy fell into single digits. Restaurants were empty, jetliners sat idle and millions of people were thrown out of work as the industry hemorrhaged billions of dollars.

But those dark days - the worst month was May 2003 - are now just a bad memory. The industry is showing the healthy growth that has for years provided many nations in the region with needed cash and jobs.

"The rebound was very quick and it was a strong rebound," said John Koldowski, research chief at the Pacific Asia Travel Association, based in Bangkok.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome originated in mainland China's Guangdong province in late 2002 and began spreading through parts of Asia in February 2003 before it was contained in July of that year. Just a few isolated cases have emerged since.

The disease infected some 8,100 people and killed almost 800 worldwide, striking hard in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam. When the WHO put out its travel advisories, tourism was devastated. China had 349 SARS deaths, Hong Kong 299, Taiwan 37, Singapore 33, and Vietnam 5.

Tourism in May dropped 70.5. percent in China, 86.8 percent in Hong Kong and 70.7 percent in Singapore.

Singapore restaurateur Amarjit Singh, who owns a riverside curry house popular with expatriates and tourists, saw business plunge by 60 percent.

"I'd never seen anything like that before," said Singh, a three-decade veteran of the restaurant trade. "But business is coming back and things are looking far better than the SARS days."

All told, the number of international visitors arriving in Asia-Pacific destinations plunged by 6.6 million in the first five months of 2003. They have now surged ahead by 15.3 million - for a total of 88.0 million - in roughly the first five months of 2004.

But travel executives say the recovery has been uneven in places. The huge discounts that were available during SARS have vanished.

Some Hong Kong restaurants that were mostly empty a year ago now have people waiting outside to get in. Crowds are spilling into the streets outside Singapore tourist spots including the waterfront bar and restaurant districts of Boat Quay and Clarke Quay.

"Last year, there was a lot of sitting on my bike. It doesn't take too long these days to get a customer," said Tony Goh, 50, who pedals tourists around in a three-wheeled Singapore "trishaw" taxi.

Hotels in China that saw occupancy fall last year are now filling up again and getting better rates from their clients.

"Our business has recovered to its level before SARS, if not even higher," said Weddy Xu, marketing manager at Pudong Grand Hyatt Shanghai.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board says more than 10 million people had visited during the first six months of the year, a 68.3 percent increase over the first half of 2003 as the territory enjoys a powerful boost from new rules in China that allows more mainlanders to travel here.

At Vietnam's leading tour operator, SaigonTourist, business has recovered with an 85 percent increase during the first seven months of 2004 when compared with 2003. That almost brought the company back to its levels from 2002, said planning and marketing executive Nguyen Ngoc Thien.

"It's a very promising figure, given the country was hit by bird flu earlier this year," Thien said. "We hope to see an even stronger increase in the second half of this year."