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Asia calling
- Luxury speaks

Every cloud — even the ash-covered ones hovering over Europe this summer — has a silver lining. Europe’s loss has been Asia’s gain and ‘travel Asia’ has become the mantra for holidaymakers this summer. Of course as ever, Southeast Asia tops the charts, but relatively uncharted territories like Jordan, mainland China and Macau, Japan and even Sri Lanka are winning tourist footfalls.

And why not? There’s something in this vast and sprawling continent for everybody. Luxury vacation? Check. Heritage tours? Check. Adrenalin boost? Check. Or simply shopping? Oh quit quibbling, just pick a spot and you’ve got it all. As Himanshu Singh, managing director, Travelocity India points out: “The most convenient aspect of travelling to Asia is its diversity. One can close his or her eyes and point out any place on the map of Asia and the chances are that it will turn out to be a place worth travelling to.”

What works even better for Indian tourists is the fact that getting a visa for Asian countries is a cakewalk compared to say getting a Schengen visa. As Sumitra Senapaty, founder CEO of the travel outfit Women on Wanderlust says without mincing words: “Getting your visa for Europe is a pain. The Schengen visa is expensive, the interviews are harassing and people have to travel absurdly for their interviews. By contrast say for Cambodia or Jordan, you sail through. It is easy processing and you don’t really need to start a holiday with that kind of stress.”

Kiattipong Panchee

Rakesh Ramnani of Vensimal Travels adds that both airfares and accommodation are cheaper in Asian countries, something that Singh attributes to Asia’s success as well. “If you compare airfares and hotel tariffs, you’ll find that a trip to Goa or Kerala works out to be more expensive than say taking an AirAsia flight to Kuala Lumpur and staying there for a long weekend,” says Ramnani. Also, the tourism boards of these countries are very aggressive about promoting the destinations.

Add to this some very pertinent facts about sweeter exchange rates, food and cultural elements that are close to most Indians’ comfort zone and you see why we’re falling back in love with the Orient. So fasten your seatbelts and let’s put flag pins on the new hot spots.

Luxury speaks

(Above) the ‘rose red city’ of stone, Petra, is Jordan’s hottest tourist spot; (below) the Forbidden City in Beijing, formerly the Chinese imperial palace, is a sprawling reminder of the country’s past glories

The idea of luxury sits well with the imagery Asia brings up. The mystery of the Orient, sensuous spa treatments, the extravagant cuisines and the sheer opulence of colours and sights is a sensory overdose. No wonder that some of the biggest names in the luxury biz are to be found here. Aman Resorts, Six Senses, Bvlgari — you are simply spoilt for choice.

Southeast Asia wins hands down when it comes to luxury. The hot tickets are Indonesia, Vietnam and Laos for the ultimate write-home-about luxury experiences. Take Bali. It’s a culturally rich, lively and yet exquisitely beautiful destination. And it’s this rich heritage that made it a site for Bvlgari Hotels and Resorts venture in Asia. The Bvlgari Bali offers an experience in luxury, perched 150m above the sea on a cliffside overlooking the Indian Ocean. With its own private beach, this 59-villa resort offers everything from the mandatory spa treatments to volcano visits by a helicopter or even a personal shopper!

Laos and Vietnam are not too far behind. In fact Laos has been awarded the distinction of being one of the hottest destinations in 2010 by Conde Nast Traveller. And if you need to do it in style, what better way than to join the droves of Aman junkies around the world and check in at Aman Taka, located in the heart of Luang Prabang, a declared UNESCO heritage site. This town, which is the meeting point for two rivers the Mekong and the Nam Khan, is known for its temples and monasteries, and is a seat of Buddhist learning. It was once the ancient royal capital and is considered a showcase of the perfect amalgam of French and Lao architecture. (If you’re looking for something closer home though, don’t forget to check out the Aman properties in Sri Lanka and Bhutan.)

Vietnam is promoting tourism quite aggressively and Hanoi will turn 1,000 years old in October 2010. According to a World Tourism Organization report, Vietnam stands fourth in terms of tourism growth in the first quarter of 2010. From Ho Chi Minh City to Halong Bay, there’s a lot to cover. But for the luxe locales, the Six Senses Hideaway Ninh Van Bay is your ticket. A 20-minute boat ride from Nha Trang City, this one is for those who swear by seclusion. Accessible only by sea, this 58-villa resort has everything from personal pools to personal butlers at your service.

Maldives, another aggressive bidder on the luxury tourism scene, offers something in the same vein. Soneva Gili, also by Six Senses, takes you to a tiny coral island 20 minutes from Male and you get to live in over-water villas, set along jetties going through the lagoon, with your own private water garden and sun decks.

Go live life luxe size!

Time travel

On a clear day you can get an unparalleled view of the snow-capped Mount Fuji

It is very difficult to pick and choose countries in Asia and say — here’s where you get to see the richest tapestry of human heritage. It doesn’t work that way. But of the many historically significant places, the ones that are on the tourist radar now are Cambodia, China, Tibet and lately, Jordan.

According to statistics released by Cambodia Tourism, the largest footfall from South Asia in the period from January to March, 2010, has been that of the Indian tourists, up by almost 6 per cent already. And the international tourist footfall too for this period has been on the rise by almost 10 per cent. Martin Dishman, managing director of the One Hotel in Siem Reap (the hotel where you are the only guest at a given time, hence the name) says: “Compared to tourists from Japan or Korea, the hotel has seen more Indian guests. And for the past calendar year there has been an increase in tourist arrivals to Siem Reap, a trend that will continue for some years to come as it is a very undeveloped destination compared to say Thailand or Vietnam.” The ruins of Angkor Wat of course is the highest spot of the trip to Cambodia but you must not miss out on Phnom Penh, the capital and other spots like Preah Vihear, Battambang and the white sand beaches of Sihanoukville.

China is considered to be one of the oldest continuous civilisations in the world. Shanghai or Beijing, the Great Wall or the terracotta warriors — China has always offered many a lure to travellers. And of course, there’s the cuisine — probably the most popular around the world — though each region interprets it differently.

The colourful and exciting Dragon Boat Carnival, held in Victoria Harbour, brings participants from all over the world to Hong Kong
Pix courtesy: www.travelchacha.com

The growing popularity of China for tourists is reflected in the huge number of packages that the travel operators are throwing in for China. Customised or otherwise, these are targeting the population that is suffering from a severe ‘been-there, done-that’ syndrome as far as travel is concerned.

“A rose red city half as old as time” — your travel would be incomplete if you forgot to stop by Petra in Jordan. In the din about blue seas and white beaches and green forests and snowy mountains, Jordan had often fallen off the radar as one of the most spectacular sites in Asia.

Of late, Indian tourists seem to have rediscovered it (just see the sheer number of travel packages on offer for it) and according to Senapaty, “the romance and the mystery of it are hard to escape”. Senapaty has been taking a growing number of women tourists to Jordan each year and is all set to launch her Jordan trip a little later this year. From the City of Mosaics — Madaba to Petra Valley, the Dead Sea and the Red Sea and all that lies between, you will be lost in the wonder of it all.

Urban jungle

It’s a race to glory at the Macau Grand Prix, the only street circuit racing venue used by both motorbikes and cars

Urban tourism is another big aspect of travel in Asia. Burn the bucks and give in to the edgy, pacy life of a metropolis. Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Tokyo — these are some of the most popular destinations for Indian tourists. Proximity, easy flights and cheap fares simply sweeten the deal. And for the thrill addicts, these cities are even bigger draws due to their nightlife, the thriving motor sport scene and of course street food and shopping!

With the Great Singapore Sale on full strength till July 2010, Singapore is a top draw now. And come September, the city will host the annual Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix.

Hong Kong, of course, is another hot spot for Indians. And there’s a whole list of thrills waiting — the International Arts carnival on from July till middle of August, the Dragon Boat Carnival (three days of international dragon boat racing) in end of July, the Ngong Ping 360 Shaolin Showcase (a spectacular performance by Shaolin Kung Fu masters) from end of July to middle of August or even the Hong Kong Computer and Communications Festival 2010 to be held between August 20 and 23 — just take your pick and plan your itinerary.

And next on the agenda, of course, is Tokyo. While the word tourist brought along images of busloads of Japanese travellers whipping out their Fuji cameras in the yesteryears, the tables have turned and how! It’s Tokyo that sums up the best of urban tourism experience now and the big names in the hospitality biz are all there. On one hand, Tokyo is the megapolis billed along with London and New York and on the other it’s the political and financial seat of Japan, and the home of the Japanese imperial family — blending two distinctly different ways of living under one sky. And it is quite a gourmet’s paradise too, what with Gordon Ramsay at the Conrad Tokyo, Joel Robuchon Restaurant, Nobu Tokyo and more.

And don’t forget Macau while you’re at it. This Las Vegas of the East offers more than just a chance to woo Lady Luck. The beautiful colonial Portuguese-influenced architecture, the shopping experience and the sumptuous cuisine make it a favourite of those who like to play hard. No wonder the big names like The Venetian and the Mandarin Oriental have set up shop there to woo the rich and famous. And if you’re looking for more, what about the Macau Grand Prix — the only street circuit racing venue which sees both motorbikes and cars bust it out?

However, this is by no means an exhaustive list of hotspots. It seems that the whole of Asia has suddenly emerged as the playground of the footloose and fancy-free. There are all-time favourites like Sri Lanka (with round trip flight fares as low as Rs 8,000 from Chennai) or Thailand, which is unfortunately a bit of a risky venture now. And then there are emerging places like Philippines and Tibet, which are coming into the limelight. So take a map, mark a spot and set off on that next adventure while the time’s just right.        

TRIP PLANNER

Indonesia

Price range: USD 750-8,000 per night

Quick click: infobali@bulgarihotels.com; www.bulgarihotels.com

Laos

Price range: USD 600-1,400 per night

Quick click: reservations@ amanresorts.com; amantaka@ amanresorts.com

Maldives

Price range: USD 800 onwards

Quick click: sales-delhi@sixsenses.com; www.sixsenses.com

Cambodia

Price range: USD 250 plus taxes per night

Quick click: youaretheone@ theonehotelangkor.com; www. theonehotelangkor.com

Vietnam

Price range: USD 780 onwards per night

Quick click: sales-delhi@sixsenses.com; www.sixsenses.com" www.sixsenses.com

China

Price range: Rs 81,338 to Rs 91, 445 for two, for five nights, six days

Quick click: www.travelocity.co.in" www.travelocity.co.in

Philippines

Price range: Rs 82,281 for two, for five nights and six days

Quick click: www.travelocity.co.in

Jordan

Price range: Rs 79,000 per person for six nights, seven days

Quick click: me@wowsumitra.com

Singapore

Price range: Rs 11,642 per person for two nights, three days

Quick click: www.eezeego1.com

Hong Kong

Price range: Rs 26,499 per person for three nights, four days

Quick click: www.travelchacha.com

Japan

Price range: Rs 1,18,389 for two; five nights, six days

Quick click: www.travelocity.co.in

Macau

Price range: HK$1,388 to HK$1,688 per night

Quick click: glmfm-reservations@mohg.com

Sri Lanka

Price range: USD 580 to USD 680 per person for two nights, with a complimentary night

Quick click: exotica.bentota@tajhotels.com

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