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Asian millennials are booking their own adventures

How smartphones, social media and cheap air fares are changing the face of travel

Jeans Street in the Kojima district of Okayama, Japan   © Getty Images

BANGKOK What brought Somsri Sukumpantanasan, a 54-year-old office worker from Bangkok, all the way to Kojima, a remote coastal town in southwestern Japan, was simple: It was where her 17-year-old son's favorite pair of jeans came from.

"He wanted to know the story behind his Momotaro jeans," she explained, referring to the premium brand that, together with 34 other shops, is part of "Jeans Street" in the center of the small town.

Somsri Sukumpantanasan and her husband visited Kojima while on vacation from Thailand.

It may seem like a long way to go for a pair of jeans, but Somsri and her family represent a new kind of Asian tourist, one that isn't afraid to get off the beaten path and head for places that traditional package tours might not cover. Rising incomes, cheaper air fares and the power of social media are making it easier for them to do that.

For places like Kojima, the trend is a blessing. The town produced Japan's first pair of jeans back in the 1960s and rapidly became a prime denim-making area. But as producers began looking abroad for cheaper labor, the local economy lost steam, and it wasn't long before the main shopping street was lined with shuttered shops. A subsequent downturn in tourism only added to the town's woes.

Now, exposure on social media has helped give the "mecca of Japanese jeans" a new lease on life. Pictures of clotheslines full of bluejeans fluttering over the main shopping street have proved a hit with the Instagram crowd. "We were desperate to make the place look fancier, even though we only had a small budget," said Nobuichi Dazai, managing director of the Kojima Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "But it seems that we got it right."

Somsri's 17-year-old son wanted to know the story behind his favorite jeans, which were made in Kojima.

That's putting it mildly. An estimated 150,000 people now visit Jeans Street every year. With a budget of 15 million yen, the town plans to build a jeans-themed public toilet that it hopes will become another popular photo spot.

PERSONALIZED AGENDAS Armed with smartphones and a wealth of online information -- and willing to be flexible in their plans -- tourists are creating itineraries that fit their tastes to a T.

In Somsri's case, the stop at Kojima was part of a 13-day family trip to Japan she had planned primarily because she wanted to try out the shinkansen bullet train after learning that Thailand is trying to launch a high-speed train of its own.

She found out about transportation, accommodation and good places to eat on the internet using tips from websites such as TripAdvisor and Pantip, Thailand's most popular online discussion forum.

Filipino Xarina David, a 25-year-old civil servant, spent 10 days in April traveling around Southeast Asia with a group of friends. They chose to visit the ancient Laotian city of Luang Prabang, because it was commonly reviewed on travel blogs and social media sites, giving them plenty of tips for organizing their own trip.

Kuang Si Falls near Luang Prabang, a city in Laos that shows up regularly on travel blogs   © Getty Images

Meanwhile, Le Hai, a 39-year-old office worker in Hanoi, likes to celebrate her birthday at different places in Asia every year. This year she went to the Vietnamese highland province of Dak Lak to learn about coffee plantations.

For Sharifah Nurilyana Syad Fesal, a 34-year-old Malaysian novelist, experiencing the different seasons in Japan is always exciting. She goes to ski in winter and to see the cherry blossoms in spring. Her most recent trip was to Gokayama, a small village in central Japan renowned for its traditional thatched-roof houses.

Sharifah Nurilyana Syad Fesal, a Malaysian novelist, poses for pictures in the Japanese mountain village of Gokayama. (Photo by Masayuki Kozono)

She posts travel tips for her followers on Facebook and Instagram, many of whom are Muslim, like her.

"When I post pictures of a place I visited, they also visit," Fesal said. "I can give all the information about souvenirs in the store, how much they cost. I can post information about how to drive here by car, and if you don't have a car, how to come here by other means."

Unlike those traveling on package tours, individual Asian travelers are looking for unique experiences and breathtaking photo opportunities -- in no small part because they want to share their adventures online. According to a Pacific Asia Travel Association survey of Asian millennials, social media and word-of-mouth factor heavily into their decisions on where to travel and what to do, with young Thais and Filipinos the most likely to be influenced by friends' social media posts.

European countries or the U.S. remain the dream destinations for many Asians, according to the PATA survey, but most end up traveling closer to home, as lower traveling costs, due largely to the rise of budget air carriers, make Asian locations the more realistic option. Ease of entry is another consideration. Among Asians, only Singaporeans and Japanese nationals can enter both European countries and the U.S. without a visa.

Traveling within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, on the other hand, has become practically visa-free. In 2013, Japan waived tourist visas for Thai travelers, which led to a spike in arrivals, quickly making Thailand the fifth-largest source of travelers to the country. A survey released this year by online travel agency Travelzoo showed that Japan was the most visited country by Asian travelers. According to Chinese online travel agency Ctrip, Thailand was the most popular destination for Chinese travelers during this year's Lunar New Year holiday season.

GROWING INFLOW Asia is enjoying prime-time levels of international tourism. Bangkok topped the list in number of overnight visitors year in 2016, according to the annual Global Destination Cities Index compiled by Mastercard. Moreover, 14 of the 20 major cities that saw the fastest average annual growth in overnight visitors from 2009 to 2016 were in Asia, with Osaka ranking first, China's Chengdu coming second and Colombo placing fourth.

Tourism is becoming increasingly important as a source of revenue for local governments, especially in places where other areas of the economy, such as exports, have been sluggish.

The World Tourism Council estimates that travel and tourism contributed $2.27 trillion, or 9%, to Asia's total gross domestic product in 2016, and that it will grow on average 6% a year to $4.2 trillion, or 11% of GDP, by 2027. This outpaces the global travel market, which is projected to grow by an average 3.6% a year.

In countries like Thailand and Cambodia, tourism already makes up 20% of the economy. The amount of money spent by foreign visitors in Thailand in 2016 was the fourth largest in the world after the U.S., China and Spain, despite the country's relatively low cost of living, and is expected to beat Spain by 2027.

As an economy becomes more dependent on tourism, diversification in terms of the sources of tourists becomes more crucial. Thailand's Pattaya resort learned that lesson when the ruble crashed in 2014. Russian tourists dropped by 60% on the year, hitting the local industry hard. Some hotels, however, took the chance while occupancy rates were low to renovate in order to cater to a wider range of guests. Some added meeting rooms to attract business travelers, while others reached out to Indian and Chinese leisure travelers.

At the same time, some countries are concerned about the amount of money that goes abroad when their citizens do. Tos Chirathivat, chief executive of Thai retail giant Central Group, lamented in a press conference last year that the country's upper class is spending more money outside of Thailand than within.

"What's worrying is that the figure is growing at 10% every year, while the domestic consumption is expanding at only 2%," he said. If this trend continues, he added, spending outside Thailand will rise to 300 billion baht ($8.85 billion) in five years, up from 170 billion baht in 2015.

IN THE ZONES The rise of individual tourists is providing an opportunity for new locations to challenge more established destinations, like Bali and Phuket. And governments are not letting the chance pass them by.

The newly opened JW Marriott hotel on Vietnam's emerging island resort Phu Quoc is chock-full of photo opportunities. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa)

Off the coast of southern Vietnam, in the Gulf of Thailand and close to neighboring Cambodia, is Phu Quoc, a tropical island covered with dense jungles and pristine white beaches.

The area was designated as a special economic zone to develop the tourism industry, with generous incentives being offered, such as corporate and personal income tax exemptions, free land leases for the first four years of business and 30-day visa-free travel for tourists of all nationalities.

Visitors to the island increased by 63% on the year to 1.42 million in 2016. Huynh Quang Hung, vice chairman of People's Committee for the Phu Quoc island district, projects the figure will increase to 7 million by 2030.

Businesses are coming, too. "In three to five years, this is going to be the place people will be coming for an Asian resort," said Ty Collins, general manager of the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay hotel, which opened its doors in January. The hotel is the second international five-star hotel to land on the island after Novotel.

Modeled after a fictional university, the colorful property is an ideal location for taking photos -- including a few selfies. "We primarily focus on individual travelers, or explorers looking for something difficult," said Collins. "Bloggers and Instagram users with 30,000 to 100,000 followers have been coming to take pictures here, and they are spreading their words really fast." Luring film producers is another tactic that many governments are banking on, since trips to movie locations make for popular social media fodder. The 2012 Chinese blockbuster "Lost in Thailand," a road-trip comedy, brought a flood of Chinese tourists to Thailand's ancient city of Chiang Mai, where most of the film was shot. Arrivals in Chiang Mai airport have increased threefold compared with 2011.

To reap the full benefits of a fast-changing tourism industry, governments are cracking down on tour companies operating in legal gray zones, if not outside of the law completely.

As more Chinese tourists come to Thailand, many are falling victim to illegal "zero-dollar tours," in which small travel agencies offer packages at low prices but then pressure travelers to buy overpriced souvenirs or other items at designated stores, usually run by their Chinese affiliates. For Thailand, it means less income for local stores and on top of that, a bad reputation.

In mid-June, officials from the Thai Ministry of Tourism and the China National Tourism Administration met to discuss the issue. They decided, among other things, for Thailand's Online Tourism Club and Chinese tour operators to sign an agreement in August aimed at preventing the sale of bargain-priced tour packages.

This move follows a crackdown last September when officials impounded 2,150 tourist coaches and shut down three zero-dollar tour companies. Partly for this reason, Thailand received only 8.9 million Chinese tourists in 2016, down from the expected 10 million.

KEEPING UP Meanwhile, the new independent traveler is proving a challenge for conventional tourism destinations.

Visitor numbers to Hong Kong were down 4.5% on the year in 2016, the largest drop since 2003, when the city was hit by an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. The most recent decline was attributed to fewer mainland Chinese arrivals, which accounted for 70% of total visitors to Hong Kong, due in part to a stronger local currency against the yuan and a shortage of new attractions.

"There's nothing much to do other than shopping," said Jenny Liang, a 25-year-old from Shanghai who visited Hong Kong. "But shopping is no longer a top priority for me when sizable malls are plentiful at home and buying online is cheap." The Hong Kong Tourism Board has raised its marketing budget to 620 million Hong Kong dollars ($79.4 million) to woo visitors with mega-events. Gregory So Kam-leung, then Hong Kong's Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, said in June that the territory would strive to become the "events capital of Asia" by hosting the FIA Formula E championship later this year as well as homegrown events, such as the Hong Kong Cyclothon and the annual Wine and Dine Festival.

Singapore has long been a popular destination for first-time travelers, thanks to its accessibility, English-speaking population and mix of different cultures. Its status as an air transit hub also helped the tourism industry hit a record last year, both in tourist numbers and spending. But as individual travelers and millennials look beyond the skyscrapers and high-end shopping malls that Singapore is known for, the city-state could be in danger of losing some of its tourists to its more exotic neighbors.

"[Individual travelers] seek local experiences with stronger local elements, such as exploring old precincts. They like immersive tours and experiences, such as local food tours," said Rachel Loh, director of strategic planning and incentive policy at the Singapore Tourism Board. Some of the grant schemes under the board's Tourism Development Fund are aimed at commercializing new tourism concepts and scaling up niche events and activities that showcase Singapore's hidden gems.

Industry players are also desperate to offer travelers something different. Malaysian resort operator Genting's Hong Kong-based cruise arm launched Genting Dream, a luxury cruise liner that will make Singapore its home port for a year starting this December. Looking to offer a more adventurous experience than a typical cruise, the ship houses the city-state's high-energy nightclub Zouk, as well as six water slides, a climbing wall, and a 35-meter zipline so travelers can have a "Tarzan" moment overlooking the ocean.

Nikkei staff writers Tomomi Kikuchi in Singapore, Mitsuru Obe in Tokyo, Mikhail Flores in Manila, Jennifer Lo in Hong Kong and Asian regional correspondent Marwaan Macan-Markar contributed to this article.

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