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JULY 21, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 28 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Randy Lagerway


Surfing's Only the Beginning
If you are planning an adventure holiday, make the Internet your first stop
By OLIVER ROHLFS

When American Michael Shapiro wanted to add a dash of adventure to his Asian travels, he started with a trip to his computer. Shapiro, who is the author of The Internet Travel Planner, used the Internet to scout for ideas, compare offerings from different travel outfitters and book the tour of his choice. A few weeks later he was kayaking the caves of Phang-Nga Bay in southern Thailand. "It all worked out fine and it was a fantastic trip," he says.

Shapiro is among the growing millions of vacationers who are shunning the shopping-and-bus-tour circuit in favor of the great outdoors. Nature, Eco-tourism and Adventure Travel — known in the business as NEAT — is expanding three times as fast as the tourism industry in general, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. And some of the most interesting destinations are in Asia. From the white waters of the Himalaya, to the jungles of Borneo, to the coral reefs of the Philippines, the continent's varied geographies make it a natural for nature-lovers. Asia-Pacific tourism grew by 7.5% in 1999, with 94 million international tourist arrivals. Industry officials say much of the momentum for that growth is NEAT. "The main market is for predictable adventure," says Robert Greifenberg, founder of Phuket-based Siam Safari Nature Tours. "People want a challenge with minimum risks. If there are risks, they want an option to do it or not."

The Internet is making planning such a trip easier than ever. For starters, the Web can be a great source of inspiration. Sites such as the Great Outdoors Recreation Page (www.gorp.com), or www.mountainzone.com detail a wide range of adrenaline-packed activities guaranteed to quicken your pulse (as may the prices charged for the Everest-proof outdoor apparel proffered in their online boutiques). Sadly, the majority of these sites cater specifically to the North American public. "In most cases, the coverage of Asia is nothing short of appalling," says Robert Houston, editor and associate publisher of Action Asia magazine. "You get the impression that the only people who are climbing Mt. Everest are Americans, which is far from true."

There are a couple of exceptions to this trend — www.actionasia.com, for one. It is the online version of Houston's magazine, with articles covering destinations all over the continent, as well as Australia and New Zealand. The Hong Kong-based website is due for an ambitious revamp at the end of July, when it too will begin selling outdoor gear. www.asiandiver.com is another Asia-specific site — the online rendition of Asian Diver magazine. It has loads of resources for beginning and experienced scuba divers alike, featuring reviews of different diving locations and pictures of the underwater creatures you may run into 20 meters below the surface (some of which you might prefer not to). Keep in mind that adventure holiday outfitters advertised on these sites have paid for their online presence, and that means they are not necessarily endorsed by the magazine or website.

With all the possible destinations, taking the next step online can be a bit of an adventure itself. Thousands of Asian travel operators advertise on the Web, but often they give little more than glitzy descriptions of the trips on offer. Ideally, the site should provide a more nuts-and-bolts idea of exactly what you can expect. That means spelling out what equipment is provided by the outfitter, what level of fitness is required of participants, and just how primitive the conditions will be. Everyone has a different definition of "roughing it," and if yours includes a heated lodge and hot toddies by the fire at night, you don't want to all of a sudden find yourself camping on a frozen river eating beans out of a can.

Once you have decided on a tour, it pays to check out the operator before you make your booking. "The pitfalls of the Internet are mostly the same as using a brochure and booking on the phone — you never really know what you're going to get until you get there," says Shapiro. Try to find out who is behind the site, what resources the company has and whether it can really deliver on its promises. Use an Internet search engine to look for articles and reviews about the operator. And check with the national tourism authority of the country you want to visit. In some places where adventure travel is big, like Nepal or Thailand, these offices can offer independent advice about what to expect.

Make sure you ask lots of questions of the operator too. This is where e-mail comes in handy. "One of the website's objectives should be to open up a dialogue, with immediate access to feedback and comments from the operator," Houston says.

It's always a good idea to inquire about the company's safety record and insurance as well. If you're going to be placing your faith in an elastic cord to defy the laws of gravity in a bungee jump you probably want to make sure the people responsible for equipment maintenance know what they're doing. Because standards vary enormously, it's important to ask for credentials, like certifications and licenses. Other important questions include when the best time of year to go is, how large the tour groups are, how experienced your guide is, what skills are needed to participate in the activity, and whether any previous customer reviews are available.

When it comes down to it though, word-of-mouth is still one of the most important factors in choosing an operator. Troll through online message boards and chat rooms on travel websites like www.lonelyplanet.com for recommendations from people who have actually tried the company. "You'd be surprised how much feedback you get from these forums," says Houston. Though the virtual world of Asian adventure travel can be tricky to navigate sometimes, the best companion to stuff in your bag is common sense.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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