While the cities of Asia are a magnet for travellers, the region's islands provide a perfect complement with their beaches, forests and cultural and ethnic shopping opportunities.
While the cities of Asia are a magnet for travellers, the region's islands provide a perfect complement with their beaches, forests and cultural and ethnic shopping opportunities.As a sell, south-east Asia is multi-faceted. Vibrant cities, excellent hotels and service, beaches, culture, sports and more are all on the menu. And, for repeat visitors, the options are endless as development continues to open up new destinations.
Already, Thailand and Malaysia are among the top sellers from the Gulf, and, apart from corporate, the trend is for multi-centre packages.
"We find the majority of our customers do twin centres through the gateway cities, since there are no direct flights to the islands," said Dnata Holidays product development manager Tim White.
Koh Samui has the traditional tropical island charms of forested hills, palm-fringed beaches and balmy waters, but with a recent explosion in ‘A’ list resorts.
"Asia will continue to be a sell this year since it has been reliant on markets in a downturn, so there are great deals out there for both hotels and airlines."
From Al Arabi Travel, leisure consultant Sarah Dodds summed up the principal packages. "The islands we sell the most of are Phuket and Koh Samui in Thailand, while Penang and Langkawi in Malaysia are popular, and there is some demand for Borneo and Bali."
Bali is one option that is expected to grow in popularity, according to Jacqueline Campbell, managing director of The Travel Collection which represents GHM's Chedi Club and the Legian there.
"We started to encounter interest for Bali last year and have seen more enquiries from the travel industry here as people look for new destinations - for 2009, we again have seen interest for both families and as a romantic getaway, and rates are good value with special offers in the market now."
Her views are shared by John O'Sullivan, general manager of two Four Seasons' resorts on the island, who said while his hotels enjoyed only two per cent of their business from the Gulf, there was big potential to develop the market.
"There are endless activities for families, couples, those looking for adventure, to enjoy arts or to do nothing - the destination is very competitive (on price) and access is easy via Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia or even Doha on Qatar Airways."
Bali aside, major tour operators are extending the product offering in the region, with Emirates Holidays featuring Palawan in the Philippines for instance, while Dnata Holidays is dipping its toe in the water with Tioman and Redang on east coast Malaysia.
For Emirates Holidays, Kota Kinabalu on Borneo is another sleeper, with soft adventure potential appealing to expatriate travellers.
"The nature and greenery is appealing, and there is a curiosity about the destination, although it will take time to develop," said Emirates Holidays senior vice president, John Felix. "Generally, travellers are looking to extend their city stays and are looking for alternative options such as Langkawi, Koh Samui, even Sentosa in Singapore - in this way the destinations do not become stale."
And, all agree that now is the time to put together the Asia package.
"Prices are down, availability is there for both seats and hotels," added Felix. "Everyone is catered for in Asia. We will be putting deals straight in the market," said Dnata Holidays' White. "There is also an added attraction with new hotels such as the Capella in Sentosa and Soneva Kiri in Thailand."
For those who want an island on their doorstep, Singapore offers up urban glitz and an island getaway in one small but perfectly formed package. The largest of its 60 islands, Sentosa on the north-east coast is billed as a one-stop tropical resort, nature park and cultural heritage centre just minutes from the city and all combined in a 390-hectare package that offers something to suit all tastes, from golf or spa to beaches, entertainment parks and aquariams.
Highlights include Butterfly and Insect World; Underwater World and Dolphin Lagoon; Images of Singapore state-of-the-art museum; Sentosa Luge and Skyride's blend of go-kart/toboggan ride; dancing fountains; gardens and nature walks; two championship golf courses; beaches at Palawan, Siloso and Tanjong and ferries to nearby Kusu and St John's for fishing, sailing, snorkelling and scuba.
Among its unique attractions are an international sand-sculpture festival, black moon foam parties, a water and light show at sea; the Sentosa 4D Magix Theatre, and fish reflexology at the Spa Botanica.
As well as long-established Shangri-La, luxury offerings on Sentosa include Capella Singapore, which opened last month incorporating restored colonial buildings with modern attachments overseen by architect Lord Norman Foster.
USP: Convenient and family orientedPenang, Malaysia
Located off the north-west coast of mainland Malaysia, the island of Penang is steeped in colonial history, and offers up a blend of tropical languor and heritage where urban shopping, museums, galleries, gardens and restaurants combine with beaches, golf, boat trips and jungle trekking to provide a true one-stop holiday package.
Accessible by rail, road and air with connections to both Kuala Lumpur and international gateways such as Singapore and Bangkok, Penang was known as the Pearl of the Orient boasting Chinese, British, Indian and Malay influences and this is visible today in its cultural attractions ranging from mosques and temples to forts, churches and stately mansions.
Monkey forests, rice paddies, waterfalls and bubbling springs are part of the landscape.
As well as Chinatown and Little India, major sights include Fort Cornwallis with its amphitheatre, gallery and handicraft centre, temples, the Penang Museum and the Islamic Museum and Asia's first Toy Museum showcasing more than 100,000 exhibits.
Malaysia's first hill station, Penang Hill, is accessed by a funicular train operational since 1922 or a four-hour walking trail for the energetic, while less active visitors might prefer to take in the colourful botanical garden at the foot of the hill, or the tropical spice garden at Teluk Bahang.
Other al fresco entertainments include Penang National Park, the Butterfly Farm and Penang Bird Park, a trishaw ride around Georgetown, golf at one of five clubs on the island plus the beaches of the north shore where famed names such as Batu Ferringhi and Tanjung Bungah are the location for many international resort names - the former is also renowned for its sidewalk bazaar, a night market selling everything from clothing and batik to foodstuffs.
USP: Colonial charm and many activities
In the far northwest of peninsular Malaysia, a six-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi is the epitome of a tropical hideaway comprising 99 islands in a newly designated ‘geo-park', where idyllic beaches are twinned with modern infrastructure including an international airport, excellent roads, marinas and a slew of top grade resorts. A balmy year-round climate, clear waters and thriving coral reefs, tropical flora and fauna are among the attractions as well as the dramatic rainforest mountains, granite cliffs and powder white sand beaches that make up the scenery.
The main island of Langkawi has a fistful of attractions from tours of traditional Malay villages and paddy planning to the Craft Cultural Complex with its range of local handicrafts including batik and silverware, plus the Royal Museum and Islamic Museum.
Other items on an island excursion include the cable car ride up through the canopy for a panorama of the islands, the mainland and southern Thailand in the distance; Taman Lagenda with its 20-hectare spread of local flora, story-telling monuments, lakes and handicraft market, plus Underwater World featuring more than 5000 type of fresh and saltwater marine inhabitants.
For the real thing, every resort offers boat trips around the archipelago to view the craggy peaks rising from the turquoise sea, with many heading for the Pulau Payar Marine Park with its diversity of marine life and prime snorkelling and dive spots, while inland, there are boat tours along the Kilim River through mangrove swamps and bat caves.
USP: Beautiful scenery, getaway atmosphere, honeymoon potential
Located midway between Bangkok and Phuket in the Gulf of Siam, Koh Samui has the traditional tropical island charms of forested hills, palm-fringed beaches and blissfully balmy waters, but with a recent explosion in ‘A' list resorts, the destination is now becoming a must visit, hip hotspot, with chill out pool villas and secluded butler service pulling in the cognoscenti - despite this, the relaxed environment, the charm of the residents and the slightly hippy era traditions epitomised by the thatched airport terminal continue to draw in and satisfy all manner of visitors.
Only 25km in length and 21km wide, compared to some islands, Koh Samui can seem crowded especially on the cluttered road that rings the island, and the main resort of Chaweng is always buzzing with life with its strip of bars, restaurants, shops and stalls, fringing its famed seven kilometre beach. But, peace and seclusion can be found in the surrounding waters, the less popular beaches or the abundant coconut groves, or even on the new 18-hole golf course.
There's plenty for families including elephant and quad bike jungle tours; a snake farm; swimming with sea lions, trained for ocean rescue; butterfly garden and aquarium; attractions including the Big Buddha, the Magic Garden and Waterfall, Secret Hall of Buddhas, pagodas; a cable car ride, waterfalls and the local buffalo fights.
In addition, the nearby Angthong National Marine Park offers a marine playground encompassing more than 40 islands with sheer limestone cliffs, virgin rainforests, sandy beaches and offshore coral.
USP: Small but perfectly formedPhuket, Thailand
While tourism has become the mainstay of Phuket, Thailand's largest island located off the west coast, with rampant hotel development and increasing air links, it still manages to retain its pull as the ultimate tropical getaway, mixing top level luxury with beach bungalows, seemingly catering to all tastes and is just one hour's flying time from Bangkok.
The 540km² island is now fringed with names from Aman, Banyan Tree and Chedi through to the Best Western, Courtyard and Ibis via the evocative Royal Phuket Yacht Club and the Mangosteen Boutique Hotel, giving Phuket both cachet and mass appeal.
With mountains making up nearly two-thirds of the island, development centres on the coastal ring and it is the beaches and impressive topographical limestone formations in nearby Phang Nga Bay that draw most visitors - the site was most famously used as a setting for a James Bond thriller.
And while the diving, snorkelling, water sports and beach activities impress, Phuket also offers a wide range of attractions for families and active tourists - from old Phuket town with its Chinese and Portuguese influenced architecture to the Phuket Abalone Farm, along with temples and mosques, wildlife sanctuaries, the Phuket Cultural Centre, Seashell Museum, submarine rides, butterfly farm and handicraft shopping including gems, batik, ceramics and seashells.
The Phuket Aquarium is a major draw for all ages while Phuket Fantasea, located on Kamala beach is notorious as the must-see night-time activity.
Comprising a theme park with stage show, huge buffet restaurant, shopping village, cultural parades and street shows, traditional games and a carnival, handicraft demonstrations and live performances.
A quieter alternative and for those looking for some rest and relaxation, one of the numerous sunset cruises that ply the surrounding waters daily is an ideal option.
USP: For those who like the buzz
Bali, IndonesiaPerhaps Asia's most famous island, Bali's reputation as a fun'n'sun beach paradise has to a degree obscured its other attractions, from mystic green mountains and craggy volcanoes to crystal waters perfect for snorkelling, combined with a colourful culture that encompasses dance, music and handicrafts - a seemingly endless collection of traditional crafts including weavings, carvings, pottery and attractive souvenir paintings are available in virtually every village and hamlet.
More than just an island, Bali is a country in miniature, around 5600km² in size and with enough variety to cater to all types of travellers, from honeymooners through to families, as well as every budget. Divided east to west by a volcanic mountain chain and scored lengthwise by deep river gorges, it features white sand beaches in the east and south, and national park in the mountainous west.
The famed sands, surf and nightlife of Nusa Dua in the south have been a magnet for beach fans, but in recent years, many secluded resorts such as the Chedi Club have opened up in the mountains offering spas, pools and terraces with a view plus access to Ubud, the cultural capital abundant with arts, crafts and temples.
Monkey forests, rice paddies, waterfalls, active volcanoes, bubbling hot springs and lakes are part of the landscape, while the northern shores offer abundant sites for diving and snorkelling , and Jimbaran Bay is the preferred address of some of the top resorts such as the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons.
In June and July, the Bali Arts Festival is a major draw at Denpasar, while other attractions include culture icons such as the ancient Besakih Temple; the Bali Bird Park with walk-in rainforest aviaries; Elephant Safari Park for feeding, bathing and safaris on the pachyderm, and sights of the famed Komodo dragon at the Bali Reptile Park, as well as the Waterborn Park with a kilometre of water slides and rides, river rafting, kayaking, riding and cycle tours.
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