Travel to Asia is on the rebound, and tour operators who have long specialized in the region are welcoming the stampede of interest, especially given the uncertainty last year as to when many Asian countries would fully reopen.
Now, with even the longest holdouts having dropped three years of Covid-related closures and restrictions, travelers are wasting no time booking trips to the continent.
Leading the charge as one of the most sought-after destinations in Asia this spring is Japan, which in October became one of the last countries to fully reopen.
"Japan is booming right now. All of our departures in March and April for the cherry blossom season have sold out," said Scott Avera, president of Alexander + Roberts, who added that many travelers on Japan trips this year are new clients, while about 25% are rebookings.
Intrepid Travel says Japan is one of its top-selling destinations at the moment and that it has increased offerings to meet demand for this spring alone.
"We really can't operate enough trips," said James Thornton, Intrepid CEO. "We've just had to put on 24 additional premium trips for Japan this season, which shows how popular the country is. It seems like every single person wants to go to Japan for cherry blossom season this springtime."
Trafalgar, part of the Travel Corporation, recently completed a partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization that ran from December to February to help jump-start tourism to the country. The results helped turn inquiries into bookings.
"We saw a 136% growth in travelers requesting a quote for trips to the destination over the same time period compared with 2019, and for the full year to date, total travelers booked is up over 25%," said Melissa DaSilva, president of TTC Tour Brands.
Korea and Vietnam are popular
But the Land of the Rising Sun is hardly the only country drawing travelers back to Asia these days.
"Surprisingly, there's been a very large increase in demand for South Korea," said Catherine Heald, CEO of Remote Lands, a custom travel luxury tour operator that specializes in Asia, adding that travel to South Korea had not been as common as to other destinations in the region prior to the pandemic. "Everything changed with K-pop, BTS, K-dramas and 'Squid Game.'"
Gloria Hobbins, owner of Global Village Travels in Plainfield, N.J., said she, too, has fielded more client interest in South Korea lately, particularly "for the South Korea-Japan combination, since several flights from the East Coast transit through Seoul."
Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand are also top sellers of late, with Thornton saying Vietnam is Intrepid's "most popular destination globally," while India is gradually starting to see demand return.
One country that tour operators say isn't in high demand is China, which only ended its restrictive quarantine policy in January, reopening to international travel, while in the midst of a massive Covid outbreak. The U.S. State Department still has a Level 3 Travel Advisory to China, suggesting people "reconsider travel" there, and given that the country is not being quick to reissue tourist visas, China's rebound may be a long time coming.
Remote Lands' Heald is among those who said clients aren't requesting China right now anyway.
"People aren't ready to go back yet," Heald said, citing hesitations likely stemming from the Covid wave that started in December.
Rising political tensions between the U.S. and China may also be playing a role.
Lingering flight restrictions are also limiting flight availability both into and within China, which has led to higher prices, said Intrepid's Thornton, undercutting potential demand. Chinese airlines have yet to fully come back online, and many U.S. carriers committed their planes elsewhere due to China's long closure. But Thornton expects prices to drop for flights from North America to Asia once those carriers resume normal route operations, "which will make it more accessible for American travel."