MANILA, December 24, 2005 (STAR) By Joy Angelica Subido - Watch Asia reach new economic heights. The World Tourism Organization has reported that China is now Asia’s most popular destination. After France, Spain and the United States, China has replaced Italy as the fourth most visited country in the world. Expectedly, China’s progress has affected other countries in the region as well; and has altered Asia’s economic playing field.

With the escalation of household incomes, Asian travelers contribute a significant share in the tourism market. In particular, the Chinese, with sheer strength in numbers, are an economic force in the tourism industry today. A growth rate of 7 percent makes the Asia/Pacific region one of the world’s fastest growing travel markets. In terms of traffic volume, it is second only to Europe where growth has slowed.

To help business respond to the changing economic scene, MasterCard International has devoted extensive resources geared towards developing a deeper understanding of the payments card markets and the business and economics environment in the region. Through surveys and independent research studies conducted by leading economists and business strategists from China, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, valuable insights have been gathered. These are subsequently disseminated to help businessmen and industry leaders maximize on the potentials of the market.

To discuss trends that drive the hospitality industry in Asia/Pacific, the MasterCard Global Hospitality Forum was held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Singapore recently. This is the second year that MasterCard has hosted the forum in the region, and hospitality leaders – including hotel chain executives, airline executives, restaurateurs, chefs and travel distributors – were invited to discuss the most important issues affecting their businesses and profitability as annual incomes in the region rise.

"The MasterCard Global Hospitality Forum reiterates MasterCard’s ongoing commitment to helping hospitality industry professionals gain a better understanding of the marketplace. By delivering the tools, research and expertise needed to meet the changing demands of customers, we work with the hospitality industry to elevate service levels and drive business. This year’s forum focuses on building loyalty and maximizing customer potential, and will seek to help professionals stay ahead and leverage opportunities in the competitive marketplace," said Alfred Gangotenga, senior vice president and general manager, Asia/Pacific MasterCard International. Indeed, the insights of the panelists gave participants a better perspective of the industry.

Watch the women. This is one of the highlights of the presentation made by Dr. Yuwa Hedrick-Wong, chief strategist of the Davos Management Institute, and MasterCard International economic advisor.

In his talk on Asian Travelers of the Future- And Business Implications, Dr Hedrick- Wong noted that the ratio of male to female travelers in Asia/Pacific has been shifting in favor of females. From a ratio of 90:10 (male to female) the ratio is 60 males: 40 females today.

The statistics gain added significance when we take into consideration that Asian women are the shoppers in the family. According to the MasterCard Asian Lifestyles Survey, shopping and entertainment ranks first in terms of preferred destination/ activity type for women. In contrast, men rank shopping/entertainment a mere 3rd.

The number of older people who travel is also growing. However, statistics likewise show that older women generally outlive men and are more likely to travel after retirement age. Clearly women represent a formidable economic powerhouse in the travel and hospitality industry.

Health and safety concerns were indicated as the main barriers for traveling by those who were uninterested in traveling to Asia. This was mentioned by Lisa Hughes, vice president and publisher of the American travel magazine Condé Nast Traveler in her talk What Matters Now in Asia.

Citing that although the majority, or 85 percent, of their polled subscribers remained interested in traveling to Asia, the 15percent who are uninterested in traveling to the region had health (72 percent) and safety (65 percent) concerns. Among the other reasons for lack of interest included distance (Too far 54 percent), language barrier (46 percent), and lack of information on Asia (22 percent.)

Significantly, Hughes cited that there were what the Condé Nast Traveler Research Center called "resilient travelers." For 65 percent of the resilient travelers, avian influenza or bird flu has had very little/no effect on their likelihood to travel to Asia; the bombings in Bali have not affected the interest of 79 percent; and 84 percent of affluent travelers say they are willing to travel to South/ Southeast Asia despite the tsunami. Of those traveling to the region, 51 percent are willing to travel to the areas that were directly affected by the disaster.

Open-ended subscriber comments on the CondéNast survey included the following statements: " I still feel that this is a very small number of infections given the population;" and "The world can hold dangerous situations, natural or otherwise, no matter where you travel or live."

Top leisure destinations in Asia for affluent baby-boomer Conde’ Nast readers in the last 12 months were Hong Kong (39 percent) China (33 percent) Thailand (29 percent) Japan (24 percent) Singapore and Indonesia (both 14 percent) India (12 percent) Vietnam(10 percent) Malaysia (8 percent) Cambodia(6 percent) South Korea and Taiwan (both 5 percent) Laos and Myanmar( both 4 percent.)

The discussions on Customer Loyalty- Where Is It? with CNN International Talk Asia host Lorraine Hahn as moderator, and Achieving Excellence in Service with Hotels magazine publisher Dan Hogan leading the discussion, reflected a consensus on the importance of quality. Panelists agreed that quality is vital, as customer loyalty is dependent on it. Thus, a consistent drive to strive for excellence is fundamental to be able to effectively harness the growing travel tourism and hospitality industry in Asia.

What matters now in Asia is culture. Travelers cited culture as pivotal in choosing a leisure destination. However, it must be emphasized that cultural enrichment is not achieved thru sightseeing and visiting monuments alone. The people, cuisine, the arts and indigenous traditions need to be considered too. In a world where travelers have become more discerning, the unique experiences and attractions that a place can offer will determine it’s success as a travel destination.

Where do we stand? Disturbingly, Condé Nast readers ranked the Philippines at the tail-end of the list with the Maldives and Nepal as a leisure destination. As a Filipino participant in the MasterCard Global Forum, my first instinct was to be defensive and dismiss the survey as reflecting the views of a small minority. However, coming back to the Philippines and checking in a 5-star-rated Metro Manila hotel, I realized that, indeed, we still have a long way to go. A letter from the hotel manager warning guests about friendly overtures from strangers who could be hucksters was left on the desk; the towels were turning slightly gray; the room was shabby compared to my room at The Grand Hyatt in Singapore; and as I turned on the television set, discovered that it was tuned to a channel that showed gyrating women dancing to the widely popular copycat tunes.

To sell our country as a premiere travel and hospitality destination, all of us have to work together to recover –nay – rediscover the magic of our unique culture. We have to be less insular to be able to look with impartiality at the rest of the world and discover what we can improve on. We may be the laggards in the Asian travel destination list today, but we are an optimistic people blessed with fortitude. We look forward to claiming our seat on the back of the Asian travel dragon. 2006 is a hopeful year

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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