Asian rail market is a sleeper hit


Improvements mean catching trains through China, Thailand and Vietnam is no longer an option for backpackers.

Asia is shaping up as "the next thing" in rail travel, with Australian rail specialists expanding offerings in countries such as China, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.

Rail has become a well-accepted means of travel in Europe in recent years, thanks to high-speed trains and reliable services, but in Asia it has been limited to the more intrepid and adventurous traveller.

The national sales and marketing manager of Rail Plus, Greg McCallum, says rail travel has long been popular in Japan but other countries have lagged behind.

China and Korea now have top-quality, high-speed trains comparable to those in Europe, and Korea offers value-for-money rail passes similar to those in Japan.

There is also growing interest in train journeys in less-developed countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, McCallum says.

"China, Japan and Korea are all about efficiency and high speed, whereas in the rest of Asia it's all about the experience and fun of it," he says.

McCallum says Chinese rail patronage will continue to grow as people become more confident about travelling independently in China, rather than on group tours.

In Korea, the challenge is convincing travellers to see the country as more than a stopover destination, with limited numbers venturing beyond the capital, Seoul.

Australian booking agent International Rail recently expanded its offerings to include train journeys in China, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand and is preparing to add India to its line-up.

However, the managing director of International Rail Australasia, Jonathan Hume, says there is a way to go with promotion and education, with awareness among Australian travellers low.

"I think it will be a challenge to get the message out," Hume says.

"A lot of people see rail [in Asia] as a bit unsafe, as unreliable or too difficult. There are people who have done Europe but are wary of Asia.

"But there have been improvements in the quality of trains in Asia, bringing the benefits that people have enjoyed in Europe for so long."

Hume says the company's move into Asia was prompted by the development of top-quality, high-speed services in China, which now has some of the best trains in the world.

"China's where it started and then it flowed into other countries; we wanted to expand in the whole region," he says.

"People are becoming more independent and adventurous in their travels in Asia and when you travel by rail you really get to see the countryside and be part of the culture."

Hume says he sees most Asian rail travel as "part of the journey more than a transport mode".

"It's not for everybody; you've got to be able to see the benefits and experience of it," he says.

However, there are now some excellent point-to-point rail options for those looking for an alternative to domestic flights.

Passengers can, for example, travel between Beijing and Shanghai in about five hours on a quality train.

Overnight journeys can also be a convenient way to cover long distances in some countries.

Hume says rail in Asia is "very cheap", with overnight journeys in Thailand and Vietnam available from about $40 and tickets between Beijing and Shanghai starting at about $140.

Hume says travellers need to understand the quality of train services varies enormously throughout Asia and not all trips will be suited to all travellers.

Many trains are only suitable for backpacker-style travellers, while others offer considerable luxury, so it is important to seek advice or do some research before booking.

Only Japan and Korea offer rail passes, so most trips need to be booked individually.

Hume says it is early days for Asian bookings but there has been strong take-up by young travellers through the retailer STA Travel.

"It's a bit early to tell about the retirees and baby boomers, which is our other big market," he says.

Rail Plus says one of its best-selling products in Asia is the luxury Eastern & Oriental Express, which travels between Bangkok and Singapore (three nights from Bangkok to Singapore or two nights on the return journey).

The company also offers luxury train journeys in India, recently adding The Indian Maharaja eight-day journey between Mumbai and Delhi to its line-up, but McCallum says this remains a niche market with small numbers of bookings.

Shaken up

The tourism impact of last year's earthquake and tsunami is still being felt in Japan.

International Rail says its bookings for Japan are only 60 per cent of what they were before the disaster, with many travellers still concerned about the threat of radiation from the country's nuclear accidents.

"Bookings are coming back gradually, but not as much as we'd hoped," says the managing director of International Rail Australasia, Jonathan Hume.

Rail Plus says its bookings for Japan, which has traditionally been one of its biggest sellers, are about 75 per cent of 2010 levels.

This story Asian rail market is a sleeper hit first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.