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Travel & Holiday

Flights of fancy

Travel agencies are offering unusual tour packages, some bordering on quirky, in a bid to attract holiday-makers
The Straits Times - February 14, 2012
By: Huang Huifen
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Flights of fancy ASA Holidays' rail package holiday to Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia stops at places such as Dunhuang where visitors can go on a camel ride. -- PHOTO: ASA HOLIDAYS

This June, Hello Kitty fan Shermaine Wong will be getting an overdose of her favourite Sanrio character.

The 26-year-old marketing executive will be going on an eight-day package tour with CTC Travel to Taipei and Tokyo in which everything, from the airplane boarding pass to in-flight amenities to the attractions, has a Hello Kitty theme.

Ms Wong, a first-time traveller to Japan, says: 'It will be a very different experience compared to a standard group tour where you run from attraction to attraction, some of which may not interest me. At least for the Hello Kitty tour, there is a focus on what I like.'

Ms Alicia Seah, CTC's senior vice-president of marketing and public relations, says the company launched the package two weeks ago as a novel way to drive traffic back to Japan, which has seen a drastic drop in the number of visitors from Singapore since the earthquake and tsunami last March.

The Japan Times reported recently that the total number of visitors from Singapore to Japan last year dipped by 38.5 per cent, from a record 180,000 visitors in 2010.

More than 30 people have signed up for the tour, of whom 70 per cent are women aged 22 to 35, and the rest are families with children aged five to 12.

In recent years, travel agencies have started to offer more unusual experiences for group tours of up to 40 people. These include learning to cook with a local family in India, visiting universities in Australia and cycling across the world's longest desert highway in Xinjiang. Previously, such niche itineraries were the domain of bespoke or specialised travel agencies offering customised tours for private groups of up to about 12 people.

Ms Eileen Oh, head of marketing and communications at ASA Holidays, says: 'Travellers are getting more savvy these days. They can go online to book directly with the hotels and airlines and visit the places recommended in a guidebook. Travel agents have to stay relevant by reinventing itineraries to include attractions that travellers cannot gain access on their own.'

Prices are usually at least 10 per cent more expensive than conventional tours.

Ms Oh says ASA has seen a growing number of people requesting for such niche tours since the travel agency started offering them five years ago. Such tours now make up 20 to 30 per cent of the company's tour packages, compared to 10 per cent five years back.

Recently, it launched two packages to Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, in which customers will travel onboard the chartered Shangri-La Express train for bulk of the journey. Since its launch two weeks ago, 30 per cent of the seats for the packages, which are priced from $1,888 each, has been booked.

Last November, to create more authentic and unique travel experiences for its clients, United Kingdom-based tour operator Trafalgar launched a range of more than 200 itineraries which include three components - Be My Guest, Local Experts and Hidden Treasures. The Be My Guest component allows travellers to dine in the homes of locals or family-run establishments. Under the Local Experts programme, travellers are guided around attractions such as the walled city of Carcassonne in France by experts such as historians and naturalists. For Hidden Treasures, travellers are taken to off-the-radar attractions that cannot be found in regular guidebooks.

Mr Nicholas Lim, regional director of Trafalgar, which has an office here, says the idea for a new product range came from a survey of 20,000 clients in 2009. They were asked to rank their top five most memorable parts of their holidays.

'Authentic and immersive experiences were items that were consistently high up on the list. With that feedback in mind, we started to create in-depth itineraries with exclusive trip highlights that guests will not be able to get from a guidebook,' he says.

The response to the new itineraries is good - the tour operator says that bookings in Asia doubled last month compared to the same period last year.

Over at Chan Brothers Travel, the small but growing demand for unique guided travel has led to the launch of Chan's World Holidays last year, a company-owned franchise and bespoke travel agency. It organises tours such as cycling and trekking expeditions and English-speaking guided tours to Asian destinations for groups of 40. Tours to places such as Japan, Korea and China are usually conducted in Mandarin.

Chan Brothers Travel recently launched a six- and 10-day tour to Australia for students and their parents who want to visit universities there. The tours, which depart at the end of the month will take them to three universities, and six for the 10-day tour, with each visit lasting two hours and led by a university representative.

Ms Jane Chang, spokesman for Chan Brothers, says: 'An average of 8,000 Singaporeans study in Australia each year, hence the reason for this tour. Parents want to recce universities in Australia with their children, and maximise their trip with a vacation.'

Priced from $1,838, she says the tours generated 'encouraging interest', and the company may be extending the series to include universities in the United Kingdom.

Interested in such tours with a difference? Life! picks five interesting travel packages for 2012.



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