YOU'VE scaled the Great Wall, wandered the temples of Angkor Wat and partied on the beaches of Goa. What's next?
That decision is being faced by a lot of travelers these days, particularly those who see themselves as cultural trendsetters, the kind of people who will cut cocktail party chatter short by casually asking a new acquaintance, "Oh, but you haven't been to Laos yet?"
That's because Asia has emerged as one of the fastest growing tourist markets in the world, both for the hard-core adventurer and the upscale vacationer just looking for a nice place to relax. According to the World Tourism Organization, India and Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia had double-digit increases in international tourist arrivals last year.
For those who want to stay ahead of the crowds, here are a few emerging destinations with the makings of the next Asian hot spots.
Hainan Island, China
Floating off the southern tip of China, the tropical island of Hainan has drawn vacationers from mainland China for years with palm-fringed beaches and warm temperatures year round.
Now, major resorts including Starwood's Le Méridien, Fairmont, Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons are adding hotels along its shores that will most likely attract a broader base of tourists.
Most of the high-end developments are clustered in Sanya, on the island's southern coast. A 450-room Ritz-Carlton opened there in April with 33 pool villas, each with a private butler. Also new is a Banyan Tree, with 61 villas in nearby Luhuitou Bay. Mandarin Oriental is expected to open a resort with more than 290 rooms next year, while Fairmont has plans for a 702-room resort in 2011.
Concierge.com, the travel Web site of Condé Nast Traveler, put Hainan Island on its 2008 "It" list, naming it one of the 10 must-see destinations of the year and even comparing it with Hawaii, without the Honolulu high-rises and crowds.
Goa, the former hippie enclave on India's west coast, is often cited as the hot spot for travelers seeking spiritual enlightenment and all-night beach parties.
Kerala, about 400 miles south of Goa along India's southwestern tip, is emerging as a quieter alternative with its long shorelines, sprawling plantations and soothing spas that specialize in the healing practice of ayurveda, the traditional Hindu medicine of India.
"As the spa business globally has exploded, Kerala as the center of this treatment style has been able to take advantage of that," said Scott Woroch, executive vice president, worldwide development of Four Seasons, which is developing a small resort there.
There are dozens of ayurvedic spas and health centers to choose from. One of the newest is at the Leela Kempinski Kovalam Beach hotel, which opened an 8,000-square-foot spa ayurvedic wellness center last year called Divya with 18 therapists, 4 physicians trained in ayurvedic medicine and an open-air meditation hall.
So far, foreigners make up a small fraction of the visitors to Kerala. For example, 515,808 foreign tourists visited Kerala last year, compared with about 6.64 million domestic tourists. Yet, foreign visitors are growing fast, up 20 percent from the year before, according to Keralatourism.org, the official Web site of the Kerala Department of Tourism.
Indeed, Western tour companies have started adding Kerala to their standard India itineraries. "Kerala is an up-and-coming destination but still relatively unknown," said Manuela Khoury, director of hotel relations for Butterfield & Robinson, a biking and walking tour company based in Toronto. The company plans to add Kerala to its repertory of active travel trips this spring.
For some time now, Vietnam has been popular with budget travelers for its cheap eats, low-priced lodging and shops that count on travelers to bargain for souvenirs. But that isn't stopping luxury hotels like the Four Seasons and Banyan Tree from trying to turn Vietnam into a posh getaway. After all, the country offers beautiful beaches, exotic cuisine and a burgeoning art scene. It also has Unesco World Heritage Sites like the ancient town of Hoi An, a well-preserved example of a traditional Southeast Asian trading port, and Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, with some 1,600 limestone islands and islets jutting out of the water.
Some upscale hotel chains, like Park Hyatt, have already raised their flags in Ho Chi Minh City, the country's largest city. But others are seeking out lesser known regions. Six Senses, based in Bangkok, is planning to open a high-end resort next summer on the remote island of Con Dao in southeast Vietnam. The resort will have 51 villas with private infinity pools (some villas have two) and a private plane to shuttle guests from Ho Chi Minh City, 45 minutes away. It would be the company's fourth resort in Vietnam; others are in Nha Trang on the south-central coast and Dalat in the central highlands.
Banyan Tree is developing a $270 million complex with hotels, spas and an 18-hole golf course, along a pristine stretch of the famed China Beach on the south central coast. And Four Seasons plans to open a 75-room resort by 2011 on Cham Island, a 15-minute boat ride from historic Hoi An.
Waves of travelers are being lured to Laos by the promise of extreme luxury and the Southeast Asian government's embrace of eco-tourism. The picturesque town of Luang Prabang, named a Unesco World Heritage Site for its unique blend of Laotian and European architecture, is going upscale. Villa Maly opens Oct. 1 with 33 rooms and a central building that was once the residence of a Laotian prince and princess. And Amanresorts, the luxury hotelier, is opening a new resort by early next year.
Elsewhere in the country, eco-tourism is gaining ground. The Laotian government is developing eco-tourism projects in Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Khammouane and Champassak provinces, according to Ecotourismlaos.com, an official site of the Lao National Tourism Administration.
Journeys Within, a tour company based in Truckee, California, that specializes in Southeast Asia, recently began offering tours of the Plain of Jars, an area in northern Laos known for its ancient stone urns. "For people that are excited by archaeology and unsolved mysteries it's a perfect match," said Andrea Ross, director of tours. "There are also many hill tribes in the area that allow for more cultural exploration
6 months ago