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Travel & Holiday

Escape on the cheap

Travellers rejoice as budget carriers open more regional routes to well-explored spots and places less visited
The Straits Times - March 13, 2012
By: Nicholas Yong
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Escape on the cheap Kochi in Kerala, India, is picturesque with a laidback vibe. -- PHOTO: SILKAIR

At least 13 new flights to regional destinations, some flying on a daily basis, were launched by both budget and full-service airlines last year, leaving Singaporeans spoilt for choice when it comes to taking quick breaks in the region.

These quick getaways are six hours or less from Singapore, and include well-explored favourites such as Koh Samui in Thailand and Hanoi, Vietnam.

But relatively unknown cities such as Pekanbaru in Indonesia and Ningbo in China have also emerged to help boost the regional travel boom that is now taking off, eight years after the launch of Singapore's first budget carrier, Valuair.

The proximity of South-east Asian cities, the access afforded by the diversity of routes on budget and full-service airlines, and the increasing affluence of travellers are among the factors that have fuelled the boom.

And the demand for regional travel is growing, if the deal signed last month between Boeing and Indonesian budget carrier Lion Air is any indicator. The pair inked a US$22.4-billion (S$28.8-billion) deal for 230 aircraft, including rights for Lion Air to purchase an additional 150 airplanes. This made it the largest contract in commercial aviation history.

Lion Air now has 408 planes in its order book. The airline has grown its passenger numbers by more than 20 per cent a year and carried a total of 27 million passengers last year, with Singapore as a key market. It operates six flights a day between Jakarta and Singapore, competing with carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Indonesian national carrier Garuda.

Aviation analyst Shukor Yusof notes that the growth of low-cost carriers, a key part of the regional travel boom, in this part of the world has been 'tremendous'. He says: 'We're looking at 12 to 15 per cent annual growth in terms of passenger volume for low-cost carriers, and this is expected to continue until 2020.'

One frequent regional traveller is corporate strategist Joshua Sim, who took six holidays last year. Four of them were to South-east Asian cities, including Phuket, Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh.

The 30-year-old, who works in the aviation sector, says the affordability of short-haul flights on budget carriers - 'if you can get the right flight' - and the Internet have increased his travel options.

'There are a lot more online resources such as TripAdvisor, so you can plan according to your budget. They also help to give you more information about potential destinations,' he says. This year, the diving enthusiast is planning trips to Terengganu, Malaysia, as well as Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Hangzhou.

Another frequent traveller is freelance writer and photographer Kirsten Han, 23, who has been travelling in South-east Asia since 2010 for work, volunteerism and leisure. Ms Han, who travels at least three times a year and usually via Air Asia, reckons that she will be in Thailand at least twice this year.

Figures from the Changi Airport Group are telling. In the month of January, for example, when travel demand was boosted by the Chinese New Year holidays, routes to South-east Asia, North-east Asia and South Asia all saw double-digit growth year-on-year.

And the top five routes in January were all to South-east Asian destinations: Jakarta, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Manila, which collectively accounted for almost a third of passenger traffic at Changi Airport that month. In January, 4.24 million passengers passed through the airport.

These figures include not just leisure travellers, but business travellers such as regional marketing manager Tan Wee Ling, in her 40s, who works in the IT industry. She travels once every quarter to Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, or countries such as Japan and India, for work. She usually travels by national carrier Singapore Airlines.

She says: 'I would say 75 per cent or more of passengers on my flights are business travellers. You can tell from their attire and they are usually alone. I don't know if these flights are always full, but when I select my seat online, I would say they are usually 80 to 90 per cent full.'

Low fares, high demand

Indeed, a Tiger Airways spokesman says: 'Our flights to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are hugely popular, and following our initial entry to these cities, we have steadily increased capacity as demand has grown.' He declined to give passenger figures.

Tiger alone flies to Bangkok 35 times a week, and 20 times weekly to Ho Chi Minh City. Jetstar also flies up to three times a day each to Bangkok and Hong Kong.

The low fares on budget airlines are certainly a big lure. For example, Jetstar is offering all-inclusive one-way fares from $18 to various cities such as Kuala Lumpur.

The demand for short-haul travel is certainly there. Content editor Hidayah Salamat, 26, travels up to seven times a year for work and leisure, mostly to Hong Kong and Bangkok. Ms Hidayah, who flies both budget and full-service carriers, says: 'The flights are almost always full. In fact, if you don't book your choice seats immediately, they're usually gone within a day.'

But while cities such as Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City are traditional favourites, they are not the only destinations made accessible by budget carriers.

Since Tiger launched in 2004, it has expanded its network to 28 cities in the region, including Kochi in India, Davao in the Philippines and Dhaka in Bangladesh.

The Filipino low-cost carrier Cebu Pacific also flies a total of 35 direct weekly flights to Manila, Cebu and Clark in the Philippines.

Entrepreneur Adrianna Tan, 26, a frequent traveller to India for work and leisure, is among those who have benefited from flights to newer destinations that are growing in popularity.

Ms Tan has flown to the Indian cities of Kochi and Tiruchirappalli twice with Tiger.

She says: 'A lot of people don't know about these two cities. Kochi is a very historic coastal town in Kerala and one of the most picturesque, with a really laidback feel. Trichy has lots of great temples and is very spiritual and untouched by most tourists.'

A Tiger spokesman says that the decision to launch new routes is based on a combination of factors such as existing capacity, passenger traffic and market potential.

Chan Brothers spokesman Jane Chang notes that increasing affluence has caused a change in travel trends: 'A trip in South-east Asia is now considered a quickie and not a full-on holiday, one that should be taken interspersed throughout the year as a small treat or quick recharge to preserve one's sanity, in addition to the regular long-haul vacations.'

For example, lawyer Denise Ng, 26, took a total of 10 leisure trips last year, within the region as well as to European countries such as England and France.

'When you return from a few days in Bangkok or Bali, you come back feeling like it's not enough, and you need a longer holiday,' says Ms Ng, who has already travelled to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur this year.

'South-east Asia is in our backyard and there are so many places to explore and destinations such as Thailand and the Philippines are just two hours away. Plus, the budget airlines have so many sales, so there's more incentive to take leave and go.'

And there is more to come. For example, in the last year, Jetstar purchased four new A320 aircraft to join its current fleet of more than 80 aircraft.

From next month, it will also fly daily to Phnom Penh, and four times a week to Yangon, up from the current six times and three times respectively.

As a Jetstar spokesman points out: 'Low fares are known to stimulate more frequent travel and first-time travel. The low-cost carrier market is still growing in Asia where it is just over 20 per cent, compared to more mature markets such as the United States and Europe where penetration is around 50 per cent.'




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Daily flight by SilkAir and Singapore Airlines

Koh Samui

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Check into MBS hotel on way from airport