Move over, backpackers − welcome flashpackers
The economic crisis means good deals in Asia for those with money who still crave independent travel on a (larger) shoestring.HONG KONG – The stock market plunges and worldwide recession may have hit many in the hospitality industry hard but it has been a boon to budget travelers, particularly those who have a bit more cash on hand.
"It's a buyers market," Malcolm O'Brien said. "There are bargains out there if you have the money to spend -- at least in the short-term."
O'Brien is not talking about property, or stocks but holidays and particularly those in Thailand and Vietnam.
With occupancy rates falling as hard-hit travellers ditch their holiday plans, hotels are slashing their rates to fill rooms rather than see them go empty, said O'Brien, head of traveller feedback with Lonely Planet Asia-Pacific.
“Vietnam and Thailand have enjoyed a boom period for travel, and it has become part of the economy and infrastructure. They want to continue enjoying what business there is and so are offering more bargains."
Take a browse on the Internet or subscribe to hotel chain newsletters, O'Brien said, and you will see it yourself. Resorts and hotel chains are offering rooms at 35-percent discounts, low-priced mini-breaks and airlines such as Qantas are offering two-for-one deals.
By a way of contrast, the budget sector is finding things much easier with hostel booking companies reporting bookings as good -- if not better -- than ever as people try to escape the doom and gloom but in less expensive ways.
"We (at Lonely Planet) have weathered a few storms -- SARS, the tsunami and September 11," O'Brien said. "What we found is that when something like this happens, independent travellers are too addicted and dedicated to travel to give up their plans entirely."
But they might change their pattern, their destination and they might look for the best value, he added: “They might not go to places where prices are still higher."
According to Sallie Gregory, group marketing manager of Nomads World, a hostel group in Australia, the budget sector always tends to be more resilient to market downturns.
One of the reasons, she said, is that budget trips, being the mode of young people, are often planned well in advance.
"They may be leaving school, and the promise from mum and dad was that they would get their ticket out to Australia or something like that," she said. "We do tend to find we are a fairly resilient industry. Our market is under 35, and they are not as tied to things like the stock market.”
The resilience of the budget sector is a fact born out by current bookings for Asia hostels at Hostelworld, one of the world's biggest online hostel booking services, based in Dublin.
"Our bookings are still coming in and appear to be fairly consistent with previous years," Hostelworld's Aisling White said. "It seems people are reluctant to let go of holidays and so instead are looking at spending less and are opting for budget accommodation.
This is especially so because of the improvements that have taken place in the budget accommodation sector, White added. “They [hostels] have had to upgrade to survive because of the competition,” said White. “The traditional definition of hostel as being like a school dormitory doesn't apply anymore."
White said improvements in hostel accommodation meant budget travel had much wider appeal with around 7 percent of Hostelworld's customers now being 40 and older and 20 percent being 30-plus.
"We are also seeing a growing number of career breakers who have had enough of the English weather and want to get way for the recession," she said. "Australia is one of the favourite destinations with a stop-off in Asia on the way."
These older independent travellers are often termed "flashpackers" -- backpackers with income to spend on more comfortable accommodation.
O'Brien said the emergence of the flashpacker and the explosion of the independent travel market had been the driving forces behind the trend toward more comfortable, higher quality hostels -- which offer good value for the money for those travellers whose budgets have been squeezed by the credit crunch.
The report Youth Travel Matters, produced this year by the United Nations World Travel Organization and the World Youth Student and Educational Travel Confederation, said 50 percent of youth accommodation providers had recently invested in increasing their capacity and improving facilities to cater to flashpackers.
"Our research indicates that hostels are becoming increasingly professional with more customised and private facilities, especially for the expanding flashpacker market," said Peter Anwyl of the confederation's Safe Travel Accommodation for Youth programme.
These better quality hostels make travel all the more attractive for someone like George Shaw, who is probably what the travel industry would term a flashpacker or a career breaker.
The 27-year-old from southern England recently packed in his job at a mobile phone company to take a working holiday in Asia.
He arrived in Hong Kong to meet up with a travelling friend. His next stop is Thailand, and then perhaps in the New Year, he will move to Cambodia or Vietnam.
Like many budget travellers, the financial crisis is of little or no consequence to Shaw and his travel plans.
"Crisis, what crisis?" he asked. "I planned for this a long time. I'm not going to let something like the stock market crashing get in the way. I have a budget, and it should be enough to stay in reasonable accommodation. If it all goes, well, I'll just get a job."
12 December 2008