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Iconic Ho Chi Minh City Landmark undergoing Extensive Renovations

Dear friends and business partners

For a period of approximately 3 years, the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City will be closed for the public. Local officials have given the green light to commence with a renovation plan after reports from local and international experts showed the necessity of rejuvenating this popular sight in the former capital.

During this period, Asian Trails Vietnam has received a statement that visits inside the Cathedral are no longer possible during this period. The team behind is massive project expects to complete all work done by June 2020.  City officials have erected barrier around the cathedral and traffic around this holy site has been restricted. Catholics who would like to attend Mass here will be able to enter the cathedral via the main entrance only.

The Notre Dame Cathedral, dating back to the late nineteenth century, was built in the Neo-Romanesque style, with two square towers tipped with iron spires. Vietnamese Catholics, tourists and foreigners regularly visited the cathedral for Sunday Mass at 9:30AM, with one of the highest attendance rates worldwide. The Notre Dame Cathedral is the only place offering an English mass in Ho Chi Minh City.

Asian Trails Vietnam will offer alternative sightseeing, where possible, during this period and will inform partners about possible changes in itineraries. For any questions related to this message, feel free to contact Asian Trails via vietnam@asiantrails.com.vn or email your customer service representative in our head office.

With kind regards

Asian Trails Vietnam

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Hotel Tax implementation in Malaysia still Raising Questions

Dear friends and business partners

In line with previous updates in regards to the implementation of a new hotel tax in Malaysia, Asian Trails Malaysia would like to inform you about the latest developments since the initial implementation took place 1st July. The Malaysian government has announced that this addition hotel tax will be used to enhance the tourism experiences throughout the country.

As of today, we regret not to have received any official declaration from the applicable authorities in regards to ongoing changes and proposed exclusions. Latest reports we’ve received state that implementation has been postponed now to 1st August onward and that customers booking hotel accommodation via Destination Management Companies may be exempted for paying tax on spot. In addition, accommodation rated 3 stars and below are said to be excluded too.

In addition, the regulations state that the aforementioned exemptions only apply for hotel reservations that have been made and paid for prior to the implementation of this new mechanism. The levied taxes will take effect for guests making reservations after the official announcement has been made.

It is with deep regret that we still are unable to outline this initiative from the respective government authorities and giving you a clear and definite answer in relation to this ongoing matter. Should any update from the Ministry of Tourism reach our office, we will inform you accordingly.

We apologize in advance for any inconvenience and thank you for your ongoing understanding and support.

Yours sincerely

Emir Cherif
Managing Director
Asian Trails Malaysia

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The CEO Story: The ‘long neck women’ of Myanmar

The Padaung women of Myanmar or ‘long neck women’, as they are commonly called, have had a troubled history. Best known for their exotic looks with brass rings elongating their necks, they became a sensation decades ago when they were ‘exported’ for touristic purpose to Thailand and other countries. This story is not just about the Padaung women but also on the beautiful region they come from in Myanmar, a part of the country that was closed to tourism until recent years.

This year’s Asian Trails board meetings were held in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’s new capital since 2005 when the government moved it from Yangon. For most of my colleagues it was their first chance to visit this rather utopian city in the middle of nowhere.

Most of us flew to the city from Bangkok on the city’s only international flight operated by Bangkok Airways. With six-lane highways, 50 mostly large-scale hotels, the Parliament, and government buildings forming the urban landscape, Nay Pyi Taw looks more like a giant agglomeration of buildings than a capital city. A unique opportunity for us to visit this one of a kind place in Asia.

As is customary at Asian Trails, the chairman, managing directors and I travel together for a few days after our yearly meetings to discuss in a relaxed way tourism topics concerning our business, and to learn about new developments in the industry. This year we embarked on an overland journey to Loikaw in the heart of Kayah state.

We left Nay Pyi Taw early in the morning, and travelled south on the deserted highway to Taungoo where we had a breakfast of local delicacies in one of the crowded coffee shops. After leaving the highway the road started to wind its way up into the mountains with my sturdy 4WD car negotiating turn after turn. I couldn’t make any other comparison to this winding road other than to say it reminded me of driving in the mountains of Switzerland. The lush vegetation became greener and greener at every turn until we were driving through thick jungle. I was surprised to find the road was paved throughout the drive, although not in the best condition but good enough for the vehicle to get a safe grip on it.

We stopped for a late lunch in a little bamboo shack at the side of a river, which was converted into a restaurant and rest place. It is a great place for a swim or to cool one’s feet. To the delight of the children and local villagers we took a fun break with them before continuing our journey, driving up and down the forested mountains until we reached Loikaw.

The eight-hour drive was a long one, but was a pleasant journey passing through beautiful landscapes, jungles, rivers and villages, with hundreds of photo opportunities sans the tourist crowds. This will be an excellent drive for 4WD enthusiasts hooked on travelling off-the-beaten track to see the world.

Loikaw, the remote and sleepy capital of Kayah, Myanmar’s smallest state, is the starting point for explorations to the surrounding mountains, valleys, villages and lakes. It is just a matter of time before the border between Kayah state and Thailand open, offering fantastic cross-border tours to the Mae Hong Son and Pai areas. With the opening of the border point it will finally be possible to combine the ethnic minorities of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and northern Vietnam into one overland journey. I look forward to the day when this happens!

Loikaw and the Kayah state were closed to foreign visitors until the last few years, and the entire area has retained its unique charm and fascination. Not only are the surrounding mountains and valleys home to the Padaung ethnic minority, but also to nine more distinct tribal cultures that have retained their traditions and their lifestyle. The villages are simple by any standard, and a far cry from modern civilisation.

Most visitors who venture to this part of Myanmar come to see the ‘long neck women’ whose original habitat are the surrounding villages of Loikaw. Even though the ‘long neck tradition’ is slowly dying out and visitors will mostly see older women wearing neck rings, the spirit and bonding amongst the Padaung is very strong. In fact, one should call them ‘Kayan Lahwi’ since ‘Padaung’ is a Shan word, but I take the liberty to use ‘Padaung’ in this story as it is better known.

The Padaung culture is colourful and very interesting. Even though the Padung are mostly Christians, their animist beliefs are omnipresent and the village shaman as well as totem posts are an intricate part of their culture. They are essentially farmers but village hunts, when entire villages go together on one single hunt, are part of their traditions.

Asian Trails, in line with its CSR activities, donated a water well to one of the schools in Pan Pet village. Clean water, which is taken for granted in many parts of the world, is not found in this part of Myanmar. The water well that we sponsored collects rain water from the school’s roof, which is then purified to provide clean drinking water for both the students and villagers.

Not all areas around Loikaw are accessible to foreign visitors. Some require permits and some are off limits, but with more of the country opening up I believe that more and more areas will become accessible in the near future.

Loikaw is a three-hour scenic drive from Inle Lake, making it an ideal pre- or post-destination to combine with a visit to Kayah state. This is one of the most stunning overland journeys in Myanmar and a highlight of any Asian trip. Visitors can board boats for Inle Lake visits in the southern part of the lake, mid way along the natural canal or in the north, and choose to explore remote villages and temple sites or the better-known areas of the lake. There are even a couple of guesthouses and simple hotels in the south part of the lake for visitors to stay.

The launch of daily morning flights from Yangon to Loikaw earlier this year has opened the way for regular tours. There are a couple of hotels and lodges in Loikaw, which we recommend even though their capacity is limited for now and in the coming years. For adventure, trekking and 4WD specialists there are numerous possibilities to combine the region with the lower plains of Nay Pyi Taw and Mandalay, or the hill station of Kalaw.

Asian Trails Myanmar will be happy to tailor make a journey to suit the travel preferences of individual visitor.

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Malaysian Hotel Taxation Regulations implemented by 1 July 2017

Further to an earlier newsflash from our side this month, we would like to send you a most-to-date statement in relation to the implementation of the Malaysian Hotel Tax.

In an effort to enhance tourism experiences in Malaysia, the government has announced the implementation of a Tourism Tax (TTx), effective from 1 July 2017.

The announcement made and regulated by the Ministry of Finance and the Customs Department of the country states that a tax is charged at a specific rate on tourists staying at any accommodation premises provided by an operator of the said accommodation premises. These overnight addresses are buildings including hostels, hotels, inns, boarding-houses, rest houses and lodging houses.

According to the statement, the government’s decision to implement this tax will be used to develop the tourism industry, its infrastructure and facilities as well to make a more profound effort to protect, preserve and conserve natural sanctuaries, parks as well as cultural and historical heritage sites. The announcement highlighted these regulatory measures to continue delivering tourism for the present and future generations.

The tax rate is fixed at RM20 per room per night (five-star), RM10 per room per night (four-star), RM5 per room per night (one-, two- and three-star), RM2.50 per room per night (one, two and three Orchid) and RM2.50 per room per night (non-rated accommodation premises). These fees will be charged on spot by the respective accommodation provider and required to be paid on spot to the property directly by the customer. Accommodation providers reserve the right to either collect the tax upon check-in or check-out.

Asian Trails Malaysia deeply regrets this measurement taken by the Malaysian government seeing this implemented on such a short notice with still some unclear procedures set in place, but is in the unfortunate position to inform you about this, particularly those customers who already have confirmed their stay with us. Our team will do all possible to inform all customers appropriately about this new tax regulation for tourists. However, we highly appreciate if all our business partners and friends will inform their customers prior to their departure to Malaysia.

For more information, please contact our Asian Trails Malaysia team via res@asiantrails.com.my

Sincerely yours

Asian Trails Malaysia

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The CEO Story: World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit: ‘Transforming our World’

I had the privilege to attend this year’s WTTC 2017 Global Summit in Bangkok (April 26-27) with the theme ‘Transforming our World’. I thought it would be interesting to share some of the summit’s moments and insights with you, and its relevance to our destinations in Asia. This CEO story is therefore not on my usual travel, but is about the challenges key tourism stakeholders believe our industry is facing today, as well as the transformation it will bring.

The WTTC Global Summit is also called the ‘Davos of the travel industry’. Rightly so, as the speakers not only included celebrities and CEOs from the private industry but also ministers and senior government representatives.

Among the prominent speakers this year were the Rt Hon David Cameron, former Prime Minister of the UK (2010-2016); H.E. General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister of Thailand; H.E. Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, Minister of Tourism and Sports of Thailand; Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General, World Tourism Organisation; CEOs from the hotel industry including Marriott and Hyatt; CEOs from the aviation industry including AirAsia and ANA; the CEO from Thomas Cook Group and Agoda; senior representatives of conservation groups; NGOs; and senior representatives from virtually every field of the tourism trade.

Discussions were held on globalisation, sustainability, inequality, safety and security including the threat of terrorism, crisis management, freedom of travel, speed of information, technology, wildlife conservation and the protection of flora and fauna, economies of scale, economic balance, the future customer, the future of Asia (or should I say ‘The future is Asia?), responsible and responsive leadership, and many more.

I must admit I left the 1 ½ day summit trying to gather my thoughts on everything I had heard and seen, and what it means for my company and my business. I could write 20 pages on what were discussed, but instead I will limit myself to two key topics: Disruption by the consumer and the scale of Asian travellers.

China today counts about 100 million international outbound visitors. You think this number is huge? By 2030 China will have about 600 million middle class citizens, and most of them will want to travel. And where will they travel to as their first destination? Asia and ASEAN countries. If you thought that you are seeing ‘too many Chinese’ today, just multiply this number by six. Putting this into a regional context: Today there are about 10 million Chinese visitors to Thailand out of a total of 32 million tourists. In 2030, the number could increase to 60 million!

I don’t mean to sound negative with the above facts. I highly respect the energy and dynamism of the Chinese consumer, but what I want to show is the scale of what is going to happen. If we thought that the Chinese consumer is a ‘disruptive consumer’ today, we have to realise that we are at the very beginning of what is going to happen. Thinking about the Indian consumer and the Indian middle class, we are going to see growth scenarios of an unprecedented scale. Protection of resources and sustainability will be crucial topics in the development of our destinations.

Today’s consumer and the future consumer will continue to disrupt our modus operandi. Technology will play an even more important role in the future. Ease and speed of information is crucial today, but it will become even more important in the future. Flexibility and the freedom of travel will become the right of every global citizen. Experiences is the name of the game. The sharing economy will have a tremendous influence on how we think and on what we do. Sounds familiar?

We all know we need to change, adapt and foresee what these disruptions will mean to our companies and our businesses. But are we really aware of its scale and its effect on the tourism trade?

I’m not going to answer these questions. If you are interested to find out what the speakers had to say on these issues please read the articles in the international media, as the summit was widely covered by them, and WTTC.

What I would like to do, however, is tell you what Asian Trails will continue to do:

We believe in the power of people, and that our trade will continue to be a ‘people industry’. We will always put our customer first. There is not ‘one big bag’ that contains all our customers, but several ones distinctly being looked after by our professional multi-lingual teams catering to their specific preferences and needs.

Our distribution is multi-channel B2B, and will continue to be so. Our Asian customer base is gaining in importance and growing faster than our traditional long haul businesses, but every customer will always have the full attention of the Asian Trails’ management and team.

We will continue to be innovative and push our ‘Explore’ product range even more. We understand that today’s consumer is hungry for experiences besides wanting to visit main tourist sites, and we will cater to those needs.

We are a good player in the industry and support communities in their sustainability efforts, not as part of our marketing efforts but in real life. We will work with governments in protecting the environment and tourist sites, and advise them on what we believe the priorities have to be.

We are working on the future of our technology and have embarked on a massive project years ago, which we are presently rolling out. This will not only enable instant online bookings and confirmations, but will link our customers to dynamic and static content. We believe that connecting all stakeholders to each other through our B2B customers is the way to go. Whether the end-consumer books through a smartphone or tablet, website or tour operator, we will be at the end of that chain looking after that customer. Virtual reality will become a major source of information for the end consumer, and will be used for educational purposes of tourism trade professional but it will not replace a life time holiday in any of our destinations.

What we will further emphasise on is the in depth destination knowledge of our teams, and the content we can provide to our customers. They will always have a guarantee of quality services at competitive prices in every Asian Trails destination. They will always feel taken care of, and be understood that a Brazilian travels in a different way than a German or a Chinese national.

Automation is unstoppable, but I very much believe that the people aspect of travelling remains a key part of any holiday experience. Often it is not the extraordinary sites that visitors will keep on top of their holiday memory, but a special encounter with a local person. While this local resident may not be from the traditional value chain of the tourism trade and part of the sharing economy, it will remain a (real) person. We will always bridge together people, visitors and locals in unique experiences at all our destinations.

Lastly, I wish to update you of the latest development within Asian Trails.

You will have read in the international travel press and through Asian Trails’ communication channels that Fairfax Financial Holdings Limited Canada, through its fully owned subsidiary Thomas Cook India Group, has acquired Kuoni’s Destination Management Specialists including Asian Trails. Our new ownership will not change our values. It will instead complement our business, guarantee the continuity of Asian Trails’ entrepreneurial spirit and continue to offer quality services at competitive prices.

Happy Trails!

 

Laurent Kuenzle
CEO
Asian Trails Ltd.

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The CEO Story: Timor-Leste – A Nation in the Making

Dili, Timor-Leste’s capital, is only 1½ hour by flight from Bali in Indonesia and an hour from Darwin in Australia. However, it is an entirely different world to Australia and has quite a different national character compared to Indonesia. This is not your usual tourist destination, this is a destination in the making.

Timor-Leste is Asia’s youngest nation and has lived through a troubled history, not only for the past four decades but since much longer. It has gone from a feudal state to a Portuguese colony more than 500 years ago, was a battleground of the Japanese imperial forces during World War II, and even gained nine days of independence from Portuguese rule in 1975. What has marked Timor-Leste’s recent history though is the 25 years of Indonesian occupation, which lasted until 1999 when the United Nations installed a temporary government to administer the country until its full independence in 2002.

Today, Timor-Leste feels like a new, young nation in search of its identity. Take languages as an example. Although the official languages are Tetun and Portuguese most of the young people speak Bahasa Indonesia. This is not due to the Indonesian language being spoken at home, where Tetun is prevalent, but because most television programmes and soap operas are broadcast from Indonesian West Timor.

What will shape the future of this country are the young. An estimated 50% of the population is under 17 years old and the average fertility rate is 5.2 children per woman – the youngest population and the fastest growing population of any country in Asia. Way to go since there are only 1.2 million inhabitants today.

The country’s government has been shaping the new nation for the past 15 years, but it will take much longer for laws, rules and regulations to take hold. Take the ministry of tourism for instance – there are no license regulations for guides, no tourism schools, few guidelines on tourism investments and little security for foreign investors. It is thus no surprise that only a handful of foreigners have invested in tourism in recent years. It is also sad to see that international advisors to the ministry have not achieved much more than writing lengthy papers on how to do things without any experience on how to implement their theories.

What made me decide to travel to Timor-Leste, apart from the novelty factor, were the stories from friends who had been to the country on how beautiful the underwater world is, how welcoming the local people are, and how beautiful the mountain scenery is. And I was not disappointed.

Timor-Leste and the nearby island of Atarau is a paradise for divers, and probably one of the best diving spots in the world. Snorkelers will equally enjoy the untouched reefs, the diversity of fish and marine life, and the incredible visibility. This alone is worth a visit to the country.

Driving up into the mountains is a bit of a challenge. Except for a few stretches roads are heavily potholed and partially unpaved, but road construction is omnipresent and in a few years they will mostly be rebuilt, courtesy of the Chinese government.

The mountains are magnificent especially in the Maubisse region, a three-hour drive from Dili, and a must for visitors who want to trek into the mountains and visit local villages. The traditional way of building conical houses, whose high roofs reach almost to the ground, is still practiced today. Despite the majority of Timorese being Christians, animist culture is still part of their daily life in the villages. The spirit houses are as much part of today’s culture as they probably were 1,000 years ago.

There is not much of Portuguese architecture left in the country. However, visitors can see some scattered colonial houses in the countryside and in Dili and particularly in Baucau, a three- hour coastal drive from Dili, where visitors can even stay in a refurbished Pousada (traditional Portuguese colonial style inn).

Of contemporary historical interest is the area around Balibo, about 10 kilometres from the border with Indonesia and a pleasant three-hour drive on a mountainous coastal road from Dili. Many of you may remember the movie ‘Balibo’, a 2009 Australian war film that recounted the story of five Australian journalists assassinated by the Indonesian army just days before the invasion in 1975. The Balibo Fort houses a small hotel with eight rooms, an ideal base for exploring the surroundings.

Most visitors will make Dili their base and travel back and forth from the capital city as it has the most quality hotels and infrastructure.

I was pleasantly surprised by Dili. It’s a small town with a clean beach, some nice restaurants, a couple of interesting sights and, contrary to its perceived image, it is safe. A visit to the Resistance Museum is a must as it showcases the history of the Indonesian occupation, freedom fighter’s resistance to the invaders, as well as gives an excellent insight of the struggles leading to an independent Timor-Leste in 2002.

Timor-Leste is not a destination for visitors seeking the sun and fun on the beach. It is also not a destination for in-depth cultural enthusiasts. Instead the country is for tourists who are interested in the novelty factor, mountain scenery and authentic villages, modern history and, in particular, diving/snorkelling.

If you have Timor-Leste on your bucket list go now if you want an adventurous holiday and do not mind limited infrastructure, as the country’s ‘rawness’ will provide an experience like no other. Or wait for a few years until new roads and better quality hotels will be built outside of Dili to make for more comfortable travel. In any case you will live through an authentic travel experience for many years to come.

Our office in Bali looks after Timor-Leste, and you may contact the Asian Trails Bali team for itinerary, products and information at any time.

P/S: Note the statue on the photo on top of the hill. Rio has its Corcovado, and also Dili has its statue of Jesus Christ. Want to know more? Check out the images on Google.

Happy Trails!

Laurent Kuenzle
CEO
Asian Trails

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The CEO Story: The Art World of Modern China

While I was in Beijing recently I took some time off to visit some of my favorite artists and art galleries in China’s capital city.

Many of you may have heard of ‘Art798’ (also known as 798 Art Zone or Factory 798), an area surrounding a decommissioned military factory that was turned into a center of art and artists in 2000. Some people may tell you not to visit this art zone, saying the artists have left the area and so it is not an interesting place anymore.

My advice is: don’t listen to them. While it is true that only a few artists are living and working in Art798 as they cannot afford the rent, there are many galleries and museums worth visiting.

It cannot be denied that Art798 has changed to adapt to current times and has not strictly adhered to its exclusive art concept. However, it is a nice place to visit if you are in northern Beijing, with a really pleasant ambiance and showcases modern China with boutiques, libraries, coffeeshops and restaurants in addition to the art galleries and museums.

The place’s popularity is reflected in the visitors from all walks of life – from young Chinese couples walking around holding hands, people gazers sitting on terraces of quirky coffeeshops sipping espresso to the affluent wearing fancy Chanel shades carrying Louis Vuitton bags and folks from more modest background.

Most of the art galleries in the art zone do not charge entrance fees, and you get to see paintings, photographic exhibitions, sculptures, video art and much more – all for free!

There are also a few cultural centers in the area. One of the most interesting is the Minye Korea Culture Institute Official Art Museum, which exhibits art from North Korea. For most people this is as close as they will ever get to anything related to North Korea, apart from the North Korean restaurants in Beijing.

What draws me always back to Art798 is the contemporary art exhibitions where artists make subtle (or not so subtle) political statements through their paintings and sculptures. Most of it relates to the Mao times and his campaigns, the power of the Communist party and its implications in today’s modern China, policies of double standards, and changes in the political landscape. While written text on any of these topics would probably be censored most artists seem to get away with their work, which are not necessarily deemed ‘politically correct’.

A good example are the Gao Brothers who have a large studio and exhibition at Art798. If you have not heard of them and are interested in contemporary art and modern Chinese history, search for them on the Internet. Their creation of ‘Miss Mao’ – a figure similar to Minnie Mouse with a Pinocchio nose depicted in colorful sculptures – is known around the world. Their family history during the Cultural Revolution has influenced their art and the messages they want the outside world to understand. If you are at Art798 don’t miss a visit to their studio.

Huang Yin is another well-known artist. You may have seen some of her works in contemporary art museums and galleries around the world. Remember those small men and women wearing Mao-style blue pants with brown belts, red ties and waving Mao’s little red book, as well as her rendering of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ Communist-style under Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe? She moved her studio from Art798 many years ago, and now resides in one of the seven artist villages located around Beijing.

One of my favorite contemporary artists is Hou Quing, who is fascinated by traditional Chinese poems and Chinese opera. He combines beautiful traditionally dressed heroines of poems and stories with the scantily dressed modern woman of China in one modern painting. He also lives in an artist village outside of the city.

I had a cup of tea with Hou Quing and he told me that he wasn’t sure how much longer he would be able to live and work in the artist village, as even there real estate prices are reaching levels that many artists can no longer afford.

While it is easy to visit Art798 on your own it is difficult to find the artist villages on the outskirts of Beijing, let alone meet one of the artists. We offer several art tours in and around Beijing with visits to art galleries, artist villages and artist studios. It’s not always easy to meet a specific artist as many live by their own schedules and often travel to exhibitions, but we are always able to arrange for interesting encounters in the Chinese art world. Most artists don’t speak English, but our guides or art experts are on hand to translate.

Experiencing a country through art and artist encounters gives a unique character to a journey. Our managers and dedicated specialists spend a lot of time researching the art world, meet artists, and fine tune excursions into the world of art. We will gladly share our expertise with clients interested in art, and Asian Trails China will be your primary contact to the art world of China.

Happy Trails!

Laurent Kuenzle
CEO
Asian Trails

 (Photo above from left to right: Zhen Gao from the Gao Brothers with Laurent Kuenzle and Xiaolin Zhang, Asian Trails China’s Managing Director).