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Asia: A Nice (Cheap) Place To Visit (Int'l Edition)


International -- Personal Business: ASIA TRAVEL

ASIA: A NICE (CHEAP) PLACE TO VISIT (int'l edition)

From India to Korea and Indonesia, exchange rates favor those with dollars to spend

If there's anything good to come out of Asia's turmoil, it's that vacations have gotten inexpensive. Airlines have slashed fares, and food and shopping cost far less in countries whose currencies have depreciated. "I've been in the business for 20 years, and I've never seen anything like the big bargains this year," says Sandia Kwan at Plan Travel Ltd. in Hong Kong.

Not every destination is a bargain, however. Some hotels in Southeast Asia are now quoting prices in U.S. dollars. In the Philippines, a room at a top-flight hotel runs $150 to $200 for foreigners. But for a local paying in pesos, it costs the equivalent of $100. Bigger rip-offs abound. Some five-star hotels in Jakarta quote prices in U.S. dollars, then convert to rupiah on the hotel bill using extortionate exchange rates. The Regent in Jakarta, for example, quoted a rate of $175 a night, but in rupiah it was 1.925 million--about $235 when you convert the charge back to dollars. You can end up paying $100 more per day than a hotel's stated rate, even though the rupiah has depreciated by 70% against the greenback.EMPTY SEATS. The best way to travel is to find a package that includes hotel discounts and a cut-rate fare on a premier carrier such as Cathay Pacific Airways (www.cathay pacific-air.com) or Singapore Airlineswww.singaporeair.com). Once you get to your destination, look for restaurants and stores that quote prices in local units. And be careful where you change money. On arrival, some tourists mistakenly go to the first money changer at an international airport. In Bali, such outfits offer the worst rates. For the best deal, head for a bank. If there are several, compare--because rates vary.

Business travelers can also find ways to cut costs for their companies, particularly on air travel. A round-trip ticket in economy from Hong Kong to Jakarta costs $388, one-third the business-class fare. If the economy section isn't very full--and that's pretty common lately--you can stretch out comfortably across at least three seats.

Top values right now are in Southeast Asia and Korea, where currencies have devalued most sharply. Thailand is a favorite destination. In January, tourism was up 14% from a year ago, in large part because beach resorts such as Phuket are ideal spots to veg out at reasonable prices. Bali, Indonesia's paradise, isn't faring so well, despite the low rupiah. Riots aimed at ethnic Chinese in other parts of Indonesia are prompting tourists from Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan to go elsewhere. But there has been no violence on Bali, where travelers can find some of the best handicrafts, from batik quilts to hand-carved wooden or stone statues, at unthinkably low prices.

Not to be outdone by Southeast Asia, Korea has become a shopping mecca (page 70). Before the Christmas holidays, when the won plummeted 57%, shoppers from Tokyo and elsewhere poured into Seoul and filled sacks with everything from $15 athletic shoes to $80 leather jackets. The currency has strengthened lately--as Korea's crisis appears to have bottomed out. But Japanese visitors are still checking into the Capital Hotel in Itaewon, a discount shopping district. From there they can hunt for bargains--and finish their day with a sauna bath that includes a scrubbing, cucumber mask pack, and massage with oils and milk, for only $36.

Business travelers eager for golf can also play on designer courses at cut-rate prices (page 71). And you don't need to book far in advance. Besides Indonesia and Malaysia, the Philippines are a great golf destination. As of February, duffers staying at first-class hotels in Manila can gain access on weekdays to the once-private Orchard Golf & Country Club, about an hour's drive away. The course was designed by Gary Player and Arnold Palmer and charges 2,200 pesos, or $58, for a round.

For those eager to see Angkor Wat, Cambodia's temple complex, the new Grand Hotel d'Angkor offers 30% off-rack rates of around $300 a night if you call directly (855-63-963-888). Owned by Singapore's renowned Raffles, this five-star resort, built in 1929 and recently restored, is 5 km from the temple.

India, where the rupee has fallen 10% since fall, offers some of the best deals. A visit to Rajasthan's historic forts and palaces is an even greater value now (page 72).RIVALRY. In places where currencies have remained strong, such as Hong Kong and China, tourism is hurting. Hong Kong's prices are so much higher than elsewhere in the region that local residents are even finding bargains in pricey Tokyo, where the yen has depreciated by 13% against the Hong Kong and U.S. dollars since last June. "You can cover your travel expenses by shopping" in Tokyo, says Danny Lam, manager of Kenstar Travel Ltd. in Hong Kong. Meantime, the Hong Kong Tourist Assn. has launched a new campaign aimed at convincing tourists there's more to do in the former British colony than shop till you drop. Among fun activities are trekking, junk trips, and windsurfing.

Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong flag carrier, is slashing prices and staff--in probably its worst year ever. The company has laid off 760 workers, and spokesperson Jemma Moore does not see "any big rebounds" coming. So watch for specials: Around Valentine's Day, Cathay offered a two-for-one special to scores of locations in Asia. A ticket for two to Bali from Hong Kong costs less than $400. Now, the airline is offering a "Hong Kong Free Stopover"--one free night at a hotel for travelers passing through on Cathay Pacific.

China is also stepping up the competition. Hotel vacancies are rising because Asians, who account for 60% of China's tourist industry, aren't traveling much. Also, cheap Southeast Asian destinations are luring travelers away. In response, the Chinese are dropping prices by 30% to such spots as Guilin, with its craggy mountains.

The battle for the tourist dollar in hard times means prices are likely to be low for the coming months--if not the rest of the year. So if there's some Asian destination you've been craving to visit, now is the time to go.EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN


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