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Travel sector gets Christmas cheer as Asians take off

Industry reports strong ticket sales for holidays despite fuel surcharges and bird flu warning

Travel sector gets Christmas cheer as Asians take off
Asia's travel industry is enjoying an early Christmas with strong ticket sales as Asians take off for year-end holidays in the region, unruffled by fuel surcharges and warnings of a potential bird flu pandemic.

From Singapore to Thailand, travel agents said ticket sales were brisk with regional destinations extremely popular, partly because of low fares offered by discount carriers.

"Asia-Pacific travel, in particular, is set to surpass the industry average, and is headed for a record growth of nine percent this year as we gear up for the usual year-end peak holiday travel season," said Don Birch, president and chief executive officer of Abacus, the region's leading ticket reservation firm.

"Due to the emergence of budget airlines, regional destinations have become popular," said Alicia Seah, general manager of SA Tours, one of Singapore's largest travel agencies.

"We see that holidays to the regional countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China - including Hong Kong - are the hotspots this year," she added.

Her company had very few tickets left for the popular holiday destinations, she said.

Online travel portal ZUJI said regional sales were up more than 100 percent from a year ago, as affluent Asians have no qualms pampering themselves for a luxurious vacation this season.

"This Christmas, the trend for travel is definitely more about scrimping on household spending throughout the year in order to splurge on a holiday experience to end the year," said Scott Blume, chief executive of the Singapore-based online travel booking firm.

Japan and Hong Kong are the favorite destinations for Taiwan's holidaymakers, according to Jannas Lee, manager of a Taipei-based travel agency.

In Thailand, the travel industry was busy with domestic hotspots including the northern city of Chiang Mai, a local favorite at this time of year.

"Bookings during this season are really up because of strong demand among Thai customers," said Anutchai Phetkhiao, a sales executive at Thai AirAsia, a unit of Malaysia-based AirAsia and Thailand's biggest low-cost airline.

Thai AirAsia now operates four daily flights from the capital Bangkok to Chiang Mai, up from three last year.

Rival budget carriers based in Singapore said they were happy with holiday ticket sales.

"The year-end holiday season is exceptionally busy... all our destinations are in great demand, with popular dates on many flights already very full," said Tiger Airways chief executive Tony Davis.

Neil Thompson, acting chief executive officer of Jetstar Asia, was also satisfied.

"It's looking good. We are happy with the way Christmas is looking," he said.

The strong year-end bookings were a huge relief for the region's industry professionals, who had feared that warnings of a bird flu pandemic and higher ticket prices due to airline fuel surcharges would deter travelers.

"As usual, the year-end is usually a peak period and this year is no exception... we were initially quite worried if bird flu will break out," said Robert Khoo, chief executive of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore.

"But news of government agencies taking action have given people the confidence to travel," he said.

Travellers were getting used to the fuel surcharges imposed by airlines to cope with soaring global oil prices and would have budgeted for it when they made their travel plans, Khoo said.

But a Malaysian travel agent said the surcharges and higher air fares, along with concern about regional instability, had turned people off foreign travel.

"So a lot of people... prefer to travel in their own country" for the holiday period, said Stephanie To from Samfo Holidays in Kuala Lumpur.

"Domestic travel is extremely busy compared to last year - about twice as busy in fact," she said.

AirAsia stimulated domestic tourism with a series of publicity-grabbing giveaways including one-ringgit (US$0.26) tickets to some destinations in the new year.

Sam Kheong, a Malaysian national working in Singapore, paid a lot more than that for his holiday, but he did not care. Kheong spent 3,000 Singapore dollars (US$1,785) for a Christmas trip to Hong Kong and Taipei with his girlfriend.

"The cost did not come to my mind at all... I desperately need the break to recharge after all the work," he said.