Global Economics

Guiding Tourists to Asia


It's home to some fantastic attractions, but the Asia tourism industry has to brand itself better if it wants to catch up with Europe

We take it for granted now, but before the age of relatively cheap international air travel—in the 1960s and 1970s—a trip from New York to, say, Tokyo was a fairly exotic travel adventure. Today, winging out to explore the planet's biggest cities and tourism havens is no longer out of reach for a big portion of humanity with some financial means. For the really world-weary in search of a thrill, maybe it's time to move on to space tourism.

Consider that back in 1950 there were about 25 million international travelers. Last year, 763 million souls made an international trip of some sort, according to a new study by the World Economic Forum.

Today global travel and tourism is a $622 billion industry, generating about 10.3% of global economic output and employing 234 million. The economic impact is far bigger if you consider the impact of tourist spending on such things as seaweed wraps and doctor visits to remedy an out-of-control digestive system.

Asia, of course, wants a bigger piece of that action. Right now, European destinations such as Switzerland, Austria, and Germany are considered the most competitive tourism spots, according to the WEC study. The highest-ranking Asian city is Hong Kong (sixth), followed by Singapore (eighth). No other Asian country or city made the top 10 in the survey that examined safety, transportation infrastructure, environmental quality, and other factors.

Watch Out Eiffel Tower?

It's not that Asia doesn't have plenty to offer. It is home to world-class cities such as Tokyo, Shanghai, and Kuala Lumpur. And New Zealand and Australian metropolises rank high in surveys of desirable places to live (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/13/07, "Asia's Most Livable Cities"). Other regional assets include the pristine beaches of the Maldives and Phuket and the ancient temple complexes in Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

Asia's multibillion-dollar tourism industry has had some rough luck this decade, what with the 2004 earthquake and resulting devastating tsunami, sporadic terrorism incidents, and uncertainty about the direction of Avian flu. Even so, while Europe has an edge, plenty of destinations such as the Maldives, Bhutan, Thailand, and Cambodia saw their tourism businesses expand more than 10% last year.

While Asian economies are probably best known for auto manufacturing, consumer electronics, commodity export, and outsourcing, tourism is a critical part of the mix. It accounts for more than 10% of the economic output of Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia.

Getting the Information Out

To improve on that, regional tourism industries have to do a better job of promoting themselves and getting credible information out to the marketplace about where in the region risks such as terrorism and disease are truly a problem, according to Ian Kean, executive director of the APEC International Centre for Sustainable Tourism (AICST), based in Australia.

When it comes to Asia a lot of global tourists are misinformed about which destinations were most affected by the tsunami or have had troubles with Avian flu. "Most consumers aren't well informed," he says. "If there is an event, you have to be proactive and give real hard information about who is affected and who is not affected."

Even so, Asia is fascinating to explore and has attractions that appeal to both global jet-setters and low-budget backpackers. This special report will give you some ideas about tourist havens that aren't well-known but are worth a serious look. Also, check out the slide show reporting which Asian destinations are growing the fastest these days. It may surprise you.

Bremner is Asia Regional Editor for BusinessWeek in Hong Kong.

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