Escorted tours to Asia are growing more popular by the day, so Katie McGonagle profiles some of the best routes around
Fancy walking the Great Wall of China, floating down the Mekong River or peeking over the border into North Korea? Asia is rich with cultural highlights, but not knowing the language or local customs can put people off.
That’s where escorted tours come into their own, ensuring clients see the best of the destination without any hassle.
With its diverse landscape and fascinating cultural history, China is classic escorted tour territory.
Page & Moy’s national sales manager Julie Franklin says: “China is an exciting destination but can be daunting, especially for a first-time visitor or single traveller. All our holidays include a tour manager or local representative who will not only show the best of the destination but provide reassurance for those nervous of travelling independently.”
Operators are expanding their product range across all sectors, from Explore’s new budget addition, the 10-day China Explorer from £1,190, to Cox & Kings’ new Superior and Luxury versions of its ever-popular China Experience tour, from £2,139 and £2,785 respectively.
Most routes take in key sights like Shanghai, Beijing and Xian’s Terracotta Warriors, but there are specialist options such as panda reserve visits or a Yangtze River cruise for wildlife enthusiasts, or Journeys of Distinctions’ new Footsteps of the Planthunters, which focuses on rural life in Yunnan Province.
Sample product: Wendy Wu Tours’ 27-day China Highlights includes Shanghai, Guilin, Chongqing, Xian, Beijing, the Stone Forest in Kunming and more, from £2,390 including flights, accommodation, meals and entrance fees.
The travel trade will look back on 2012 as the year Burma took the market by storm, with dozens of operators responding to Aung San Suu Kyi’s call for tourists to return, boosted by David Cameron’s visit last month.
New itineraries from Bales Worldwide, Cosmos Tours & Cruises, Kuoni and Travel 2 all include classic cultural highlights such as Yangon, Bagan’s beautiful temples, historic Mandalay and traditional villages around Inle Lake. Journeys of Distinction and Travel Indochina have already added new departures despite only featuring the destination for a few months.
Ethical considerations are still paramount, and Intrepid has made its focus on local guides and suppliers a key selling point. Meanwhile, Explore differentiates its product by putting it on two wheels, offering a cycle tour stopping at many small villages.
Sample product: Burma is now the best-selling Far East tour for Cox & Kings, since it was relaunched in October 2010. The 13-day Golden Land of Burma itinerary starts at £2,769 including flights, transfers, accommodation and breakfast.
The backpackers’ favourite is opening up to more time-pressed travellers with Emirates’ new daily Dubai-Ho Chi Minh City service starting on June 4, and Vietnam Airlines’ direct services from Gatwick to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, which began late last year.
Vietnam tours took seven of the top 10 spots in Intrepid’s best-seller list last year, Cox & Kings reports a 50% rise in passengers to the country over the past two years, and Journeys of Distinction ranks it among its most popular destinations. There’s still room for new products though; Explore added a family itinerary to its budget range this year.
It’s also a popular twin-centre; Travel 2’s 21-day Inside Vietnam & Cambodia tour is typical, though Laos and Thailand also make good pairings. Nandita Patel, Funway Holidays Far East product manager, suggests adding a beach extension to an escorted tour, offering clients the chance to relax after sightseeing.
Sample product: Hayes & Jarvis offers a 10-day Highlights of Vietnam tour to Hanoi, Halong Bay, Ho Chi Minh City and Cu Chi Tunnels, from £1,899 including flights, B&B accommodation and entrance fees.
It hasn’t built quite the same momentum as Burma, but it is growing on experienced Asia travellers seeking a modern country with a fascinating history. Korean Air’s Gatwick to Seoul service started flying three times a week last month, which will help.
Explore’s new itinerary includes a one-night homestay for a genuine slice of local life, plus visits to the cosmopolitan city of Seoul, ancient capital of Gyeongju, the island of Jeju, and the Demilitarized Zone to see the barrier separating North and South Korea.
That’s also a feature of Intrepid’s Beijing to Seoul tour, while Cox & Kings’ new private journey, Wonders of South Korea, focuses on cultural highlights.
Sample product: Explore’s 13-day South Korea Explorer starts at £2,607 including flights, B&B accommodation including a boat, homestay and monastery.
This iconic route has fascinated travellers for more than a century, traversing a little-known region straddling two continents.
Its appeal remains strong enough to prompt Intrepid to introduce a new trip this year, joining operators such as On The Go Tours and Regent Holidays.
Guests start in Beijing, where they can visit Tiananmen Square or the Forbidden City, then embark on the journey to Moscow, seeing the Great Wall of China and the huge Lake Baikal, home to a fifth of the world’s fresh water, on the way.
They travel through Vladivostok, the industrial city of Irkutsk, the Ural Mountains and over the Volga River, before arriving in the Russian capital.
Sample product: Intrepid offers a 15-day Classic Trans-Siberian journey from £2,215 including accommodation and some meals, excluding flights.
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