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Golden Age of Asia-Pacific Tourism Hailed at Singapore Travel Expo

Never in history have there been as many tourists as there are now, delegates were told at ITB Asia, with Asia-Pacific's role at the core of this expanding sector and the importance of mobile bookings also coming under the spotlight.

Photo: Tunisia: Apparently the number-one destination for Africa-bound mainland tourists. (Shutterstock.com)
Tunisia: Apparently the number-one destination for Africa-bound mainland tourists.
Photo: Tunisia: Apparently the number-one destination for Africa-bound mainland tourists. (Shutterstock.com)
Tunisia: Apparently the number-one destination for Africa-bound mainland tourists.

Setting out on its 10th anniversary outing, ITB Asia had some impressive statistics to cite. According to Katrina Leung, Executive Director of Messe Berlin (Singapore), the company behind the event, its exhibitor numbers have grown by a massive 77% since 2008, the year this Singapore-hosted showcase for the travel trade first opened its doors.

Back then, it started life as an off-shoot of Internationale Tourismusbörse Berlin (Berlin International Travel Market or ITB Berlin), one of Europe's longest-established travel trade shows, now in its 51st year. For its part, ITB Asia now styles itself as "Asia's leading travel trade show", a claim that Leung's opening address seemed to more than justify.

Focusing on both the event's heritage and its current standing, she said: "This year, we have 940 exhibitors from 113 countries, an 11% year-on-year increase. Furthermore, more than 97% of our attendees regard ITB Asia as the most important international travel trade event in the Asia-Pacific region. We are also delighted that, since 2014, we've managed to maintain a 1:1 ratio of buyers to exhibitors."

Impressive as the ITB's performance may seem, this flagship travel trade expo couldn't prosper if the sector it was devoted to wasn't also in the rudest health. Fortunately, at least according to Abhineet Kaul, Director of Asia-Pacific Public and Government Affairs for Frost & Sullivan, a Texas-headquartered research consultancy, the travel industry is entering something of a Golden Age.

Updating attendees as to the current trends shaping the sector, he said: "Never in human history have we had as many tourists as we do today. While competition may be heating up, there are still many parts of the world where the market is almost wholly untapped.

"For 2015, there were 1.2 billion tourists. By 2030, we estimate there will be somewhere between 1.8 billion and 2.3 billion. Over the 2007-2015 period, by far the fastest expanding region was South Asia, which recorded growth of 11% per annum, with East Asia and the Pacific region coming in second place with 5%. Pretty much every other region around the world was around the 3% mark.

"Despite these numbers, only 3% of the world's population actually travels every year. In the US, fewer than 40% of adults have passports. In China, it's even worse, with less than 10% of the populace holding overseas travel documents. Potentially, then, the tourism sector could still enjoy massive expansion."

Kaul's optimism was backed up by the latest figures from the World Travel Organisation, the United Nations' agency responsible for the promotion of sustainable tourism. According to its findings, 2017 is shaping up to be the industry's seventh year of consecutive growth, with the tourism sector now accounting for 10% of the world's GDP, 7% of total exports and one in every 10 jobs.

As a sign of the changing fortunes of the Asia-Pacific region in particular, the agency's figures showed that, in 2016, the region welcomed 303 million tourists, 25% of the global total. By way of comparison, back in 2000, only 16% of the world's tourists had the Asia-Pacific region on their itinerary. Looking forward, the comparable figure for 2030 is expected to be about 535 million visitors.

Reassuringly, it's not just the leisure-travel sector that is on the up, with a corresponding surge showing among those going abroad for business purposes. Providing an insight into this particular category, Gaurav Sundram, President ProKonsul and Regional Director of the Global Business Travel Association's (GBTA) Indian operation, said: "After 15 years of uncertainty – most notably during the post-2008 global financial crisis period – we are projecting robust growth of 5-7% per annum over the next five years.

"At present, the top two markets in the world – by a considerable distance – are China at US$318 billion and the US at $283 billion. In total, the Asia-Pacific region now accounts for 42% of the global market, a figure close to the combined sum of all North American and European business travel. The region is also expected to expand faster than the global average, with an annual expansion of 6-9% anticipated over the next five years.

Photo: High-tech tourism: Pre-purchase virtual visiting.
High-tech tourism: Pre-purchase virtual visiting.
Photo: High-tech tourism: Pre-purchase virtual visiting.
High-tech tourism: Pre-purchase virtual visiting.
Photo: Ctrip: China’s favourite booking service.
Ctrip: China's favourite booking service.
Photo: Ctrip: China’s favourite booking service.
Ctrip: China's favourite booking service.

"Overall, India is the world's fastest-expanding market, with 11.4% growth last year, a figure expected to reach 11.6% for the year ending December 2017. Last year, India was the world's 10th-largest market and it is expected to be the eighth-largest this year. In 2018, we believe it will out-perform South Korea and move up the rankings to the number seven slot.

"While India's rapid growth may seem remarkable – with a 10-14% per annum rise expected over the next five years – it does, of course, all come from a very low base. While China's growth may seem comparatively slow, this is because its existing volume is already immense. In India's case, it is roughly where China was in the early 2000s and similarly poised for vast expansion. It is not alone, though, as a number of other Asian markets – notably Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam – are also on the cusp of a major surge. The one exception is Japan, which is likely to remain becalmed for at least the next five years."

Even against such impressive figures, however, the cruise sector is still holding its own. According to the latest figures from the Cruise Lines International Association, the Washington-based trade body for the cruise industry, demand for luxury marine vacations has really taken off in the Asia-Pacific region.

While 1.5 million passengers embarked on cruise holidays across the region in 2013, the corresponding figure for 2017 is expected to be 4.2 million. In line with this, the number of ships deployed in the region has also increased, rising to 66 from 43. Typically, many cruises operators are now only assigning their biggest and best vessels to the region, rather than their older ships as was the previous practice. As ever, the big growth story is China – for 2016, 68% of the 3.1 million Asian cruise passengers came from the mainland, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 76% over the past four years and establishing the country as the world's fastest-growing market.

During the course of the three-day event, a number of countries proved as adept as ever at highlighting their attractions as premium holiday destinations, most notably Finland, Indonesia and Thailand. In addition to such stalwarts, though, three other nations upped their presence at this year's event – Iceland, Kenya and Tunisia.

Keen to champion the latter, Leila Takaia, PR & Communications Manager for the Official Tunisian National Tourist Board, said: "While Tunisia has long been a destination of choice for European and African travellers, our number of Chinese visitors has surged over the past 12 months, largely as they no longer require a visa. This year, we have already welcomed 13,000 mainland tourists, while at the Shanghai World Trade Fair in April, Tunisia was chosen as the Best African Tourism Destination for 2017.

"We have come to this event, though, to boost our appeal to tourists across Asia, not just to those from China. As of October this year, tourists from India no longer need a visa to visit Tunisia and we are hoping to come to the same arrangement with a number of other Asian countries. Overall, our goal is to double our total number of visitor arrivals to 10 million by 2020."

Tellingly, the majority of the Chinese visitors to Tunisia booked their trips via Ctrip, the Shanghai-based online travel agency which is now the dominant brand in the mainland's burgeoning tourism sector. Despite its ubiquity, Jenna Qian, the company's Head of Destination Marketing, maintained Ctrip was still keen to refine its offering.

Outlining a few of its more recent innovations, she said: "Since 2014, for instance, we've worked with Beijing Tourism to promote Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) both within China as well as abroad, with the ultimate aim of boosting health tourism.

"We have also opened 5,500 physical stores in a number of the lower-tier Chinese cities. Of our 300 million users, only half book online, with the majority of such bookings coming from the first-tier cities. In the lower-tier cities, then, we need a physical presence in order to provide a higher level of information and a more personalised service."

As well as developing its physical presence, Ctrip is also committed to enchaining the functionality of its smartphone app, which has become an increasingly significant channel as the number of bookings made via mobile devices has soared. Indeed, a recent report by Phocuswright, a Connecticut-headquartered market-research group specialising in the travel sector, highlighted the growing reach of mobile within the Asia-Pacific region and, in particular, within China.

According to the report, 53% of Chinese travel in 2016 was booked via a smartphone – far higher than the 21% recorded for the US and the UK figure of 25%. The Phocuswright report also indicated that this phenomenon is likely to be replicated in a number of the world's other fastest-growing travel markets, most notably Brazil, India and Indonesia.

With some $567 billion expected to be spent on online travel bookings this year, 37% of which will be from within the Asia-Pacific region, it's safe to assume that – perhaps fittingly – the future of the sector will be increasingly mobile.

Photo: ITB Asia 2017: Indonesia outlines its appeal to would-be visitors.
ITB Asia 2017: Indonesia outlines its appeal to would-be visitors.
Photo: ITB Asia 2017: Indonesia outlines its appeal to would-be visitors.
ITB Asia 2017: Indonesia outlines its appeal to would-be visitors.

ITB Asia 2017 took place from 24-27 October at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre, Singapore.

Ronald Hee, Special Correspondent, Singapore

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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